The free school meals row speaks to an age-old argument about how welfare should work

Universalism or selectivity?

June 16, 2020
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has been a vocal campaigner on extending free school meals. Photo:  Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images
Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has been a vocal campaigner on extending free school meals. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images

Public policy is complicated—particularly welfare policy. I should know: back in the 1990s I was mad enough to write an entire PhD about it.

My case study, which I doggedly pursued over decades of largely forgotten post-war debate on the issue, happened to be free NHS prescriptions. Harold Wilson’s government scrapped them in 1965, only to reintroduce them three years later. It did so not because of the money saved but because it believed that the only way it could prove to international markets, to voters, and to the media that it was serious about restoring the nation’s finances in the wake of a sterling crisis was to sacrifice a socialist sacred cow. When it comes to welfare policy, you see, symbols often matter.

But that decision was embedded in a debate that had raged ever since the establishment of the welfare state earlier in the 20th century—and, indeed, some would argue, one that goes back not just to a century before that but to the Poor Law of the Elizabethan era.

Essentially, it’s an argument about whether or not it makes sense, both financially and morally, to risk spending public money—an inevitably finite resource on which there are numerous claims—on welfare measures which, rather than benefiting only those who deserve our assistance most, may well end up helping people who don’t really need it.

In other words, and to employ the terms in which the debate was conducted for much of the post-war period, it’s about universalism vs selectivity.

And it’s a debate that continues to this day—one that we heard echoes of when David Simmonds (by no means, it would appear from his professional and voluntary background, a particularly right-wing Conservative MP), appeared recently on the Today programme to talk about Premier League footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to persuade the government to extend free school meals vouchers into the summer holidays.

Now, at first glance, a debate about free school meals can’t really be about universalism vs selectivity. After all, since free school meals are limited in the vast majority of year groups only to the poorest families, they are by definition a means-tested, selective benefit.

But listening to Simmonds, it’s apparent that, to him, anyway—and presumably to the government—even that level of targeting doesn’t provide us with a sufficiently precision-guided weapon with which to tackle child-hunger over the summer.

According to Simmonds, extending the supply of vouchers to cover the holiday period is “a popular idea… a nice idea; but there are many, many children whose situation is extremely desperate and they are a much, much higher priority for the money that’s available.”

As for the rest of the kids in difficult circumstances, “they’ve got loving families looking after them, making sure they thrive.” Extending vouchers to help them out would be “a very blunt instrument” and a “one-size-fits-all policy.”

If those words were merely a classic, common-or-garden argument for selectivity over universalism, it would, advocates of the latter would argue, be bad enough: after all, anyone familiar with schools knows of children whose families are not quite poor enough to make them eligible for free school meals who nonetheless risk going hungry every day.

But this is worse—much worse. It is effectively deploying that age-old argument for selectivity—namely that we can only afford to help those most in need—to defend a government decision not to provide an already highly-targeted benefit to those whom it has, by definition, already acknowledged are in dire need of our help.

If Boris Johnson can’t see that this decision is wrong when it comes to the substance, then perhaps he needs to think, too, about what it symbolises.

Whatever a government does or doesn’t do, and whatever an opposition does or doesn’t call on it to do, inevitably sends a powerful signal to potential supporters and detractors alike. For a Tory government, under pressure from a resurgent Labour opposition and still hoping to leave austerity behind so it can focus on “levelling up,” that signal stinks.

This is a decision that cannot and should not stand. Let’s see if it will.