Clegg cooks up a policy storm

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AT the end of the most challenging week of Nick Clegg’s career, today’s criticisms about the introduction of free school meals at infant schools – and the implications for town hall budgets – will not endear the Deputy Prime Minister to voters.

Though Mr Clegg’s intentions are sincere – it is to the credit of the Liberal Democrats that they have been consistent with their desire for more education funding to be allocated to pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds – this is a crowd-pleasing policy which was announced at last autumn’s party conference to appease his fractious members.

The problem is that Mr Clegg’s party undertook insufficient due diligence on the cost of this initiative, a failing that has been the subject of several acrimonious disclosures by Education Secretary Michael Gove’s former aide Dominic Cummings, who made embarrassing reference to calculations being carried out on the back of a proverbial cigarette package.

The old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch is no consolation to those Yorkshire councils now struggling to coming to terms with the financial consequences of Mr Clegg’s wish, and especially at those schools that no longer have suitable kitchens – or dining facilities – to do so.

Their predicament was expressed succinctly by Judith Blake, the councillor in charge of children’s services in Leeds, who said: “Free school meals for all children under seven are a great idea in theory, but because we have been given insufficient funding, we have had to ask schools to match-fund to enable us to provide the facilities we need.”

The consequence? According to some critics, this scheme has the potential to undermine the Pupil Premium that was put in place to boost the education of children from deprived areas. And the architects of that policy? The Liberal Democrats.

Question Time celebrity fodder

THE BBC defended its decision to invite Joey Barton, the odious footballing philosopher, onto Question Time because such personalities evidently “add a different perspective”.

Mr Barton, whose lack of self-control has become the source of so much notoriety, and earned him a prison sentence for assault, certainly achieved this with his demeaning remarks about women.

Yet, while many vilified the footballer’s inane responses to questions on the European elections, the decline of the Lib Dems and the censoring of communications between Tony Blair and George W Bush over the Iraq war, the real villains are those BBC editors who thought that Mr Barton had more to contribute on such serious matters than a frontline politician with actual experience of foreign policy, current affairs, or immigration.

After this embarrassing choice, and growing concerns about the increasing ineffectiveness of presenter David Dimbleby, these individuals need to be red-carded, to use language familiar to Mr Barton, for bringing the programme into further disrepute – curiously both the Lib Dems, and the Greens, were omitted from the panel.

Regrettably, this malaise extended to Radio Four’s Any Questions? last night when elected politicians were overlooked in favour of individuals like songwriter Billy Bragg, another voice of the left. That the BBC is prepared to allow two once-respected programmes to become celebrity fodder, rather than forums where politicians can be held to account by voters, suggests that the Corporation now has serious questions of its own to answer.

Timely wake-up call to the police

THE GOOD news, from the police’s perspective, is that more than 60 per cent of residents have confidence in their local force. That should be acknowledged. The less fortunate news, however, is that this figure has slipped – albeit marginally – for the first time in a decade because of an increase in those who thought the police were doing a “very poor” job.

This should not be overlooked, even though crime rates have fallen in many force areas in spite of the coalition’s spending cuts. The reason is this: there is still a belief that the police, and successive Home Secretaries, have failed to implement Tony Blair’s promise in 1997 to put victims at the heart of the criminal justice agenda.

Whether it is the handling of the first call for help, the rights of individuals to be kept informed about an investigation or those sentencing decisions that defy common sense, there are still occasions when victims are treated as second class citizens. They’re not.