Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has set out funding plans for the coalition's free school meals (FSM) policy, which was announced earlier this year.
Mr Clegg used the Autumn Statement to confirm that extra money will be provided to the Department for Education (DfE) in order to fund the commitment to provide FSM for children in reception, year one and year two. Some £450 million will be made available in 2014 to 2015 and £635 million in 2015 to 2016.
The government will also provide £150 million to ensure schools have the necessary catering facilities to meet the increase in demand for meals.
This government's commitment to FSM has generated some controversy, leading to tension between the DfE and the Liberal Democrats. The department claimed the policy would force it to raid its basic needs budget, which contains money set aside to deal with an increase in primary school children caused by a baby boom.
Mr Clegg has rejected criticism over the universal provision of the meals, which would see children from wealthy families who attend state-funded schools receiving the benefit in addition to poorer ones. The politician stressed that some benefits should be available to everyone, regardless of their social background. He claimed the move will help four in ten families who are not currently entitled to FSM and would save them £400 a year.
The deputy prime minister said: "Every child deserves the best possible start in life and at the same time we are doing all we can to help ease the pressure on household budgets."
He also said children who receive FSM are better able to concentrate in class and emphasised the contribution the scheme would make towards encouraging lifelong healthy eating habits.
The policy was recommended by The School Food Plan, an independent report produced for the DfE and published by Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent in July this year. The document presented evidence that free meals would lead to improvements in health, attainment and social cohesion.
Posted by Tim Colman