So where did this Free School Dinners controversy blow up from?

Before we leave the subject of free school meals to its fate, it’s worth highlighting the fact the Minister of Education, Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd, made a useful contribution to the discussion on this site at the end of last week (though his remarks seemed to go over the heads of some of our commenters).

 A key reason for the rise in those entitled is down to the extension in the eligibility criteria implemented by my predecessor, Caitríona Ruane. In 2010 it was extended to children in primary and pre-school whose families are in receipt of working tax credit and have an annual income of less than £16,190. This was phased in over two years and has seen a growth in those receiving free school meals to 79,800 in 2012/13.

He goes on to note that…

“In June, as you rightly point out, I announced that this would be extended to children at post-primary school from next September, making an estimated 15,000 more children eligible. Contrary to your claim the criteria have not been worked out, the criteria which will apply from September 2014 have been established and are as follows – the parent receives Working Tax Credit and has an annual taxable income not exceeding an amount determined by the Department (currently £16,190) and the pupil attends a nursery, primary or post-primary school.

As things stand (ie, in lieu of the Welfare Reform Bill passing through Stormont, yep, it still hasn’t made it yet) the Minister is spot on. The possibly too subtly made point I was trying to make is that once that bill goes through the basis upon which Free School Dinners is awarded to  poorer families disappears.

Universal Credit is a single payment that will replace Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment Support AllowanceHousing Benefit,  Working Tax Credit, and Child Tax Credit. Even in England the roll timetable is at best ambiguous, but is currently expected to run from April 2014 to late 2015.

Once UC comes in, there will be no metric available to any government or regional administration to make targeted interventions such those laid out. The minister’s figures are the menu of the Restaurant School Canteen that will apply for the period just before the beginning of the Universal Credit. It will only last as long as it takes OFMdFM to agree on the nature of that bill.

What’s the betting the imposition of the reform bill drags on until after the 2016 Assembly elections, when it could become firmly lodged in a Somebody Else’s Problem field? At the very least a delay allows both SF and the DUP to avoid a difficult issue likely to have real cost implications elsewhere in NI’s local budget in advance of the next election.

Interestingly, Tim Harford’s usefully sceptical take on Whitehall’s official research does not account for the free school meals issue as an intractable corollary of the UK government’s welfare reform programme. Nor for that matter did the Northern Ireland Assembly when it discussed the local rise in free school meal uptake last week.

Perhaps some things are just too difficult for the electorate to process, and come up with the right conclusions?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty