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Today in history... anger at school milk cut

12:00am | & Lifestyle

Long before she became "The Iron Lady", Britain's first female Prime Minister had another, less flattering, nickname – "Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher".

Forty-five years ago today, the chant of "Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher" was heard as the Bill to end free school milk for children over seven was passed by a slim majority of 33 votes. As Secretary of State for Education in Edward Heath's Conservative Government, it was Margaret Thatcher who bore the brunt of hostility from those opposed to the controversial cut.

The principle of free milk for schoolchildren had been around since 1906, when it was seen as an effective way to improve nutrition for poorer children. In 1946, with post-war rationing in force, the Free School Milk Act gave every school child under 18 the right to a third-of-a-pint of milk each day.

That lasted for more than 20 years, until Harold Wilson's Labour Government scrapped free milk for secondary school pupils in 1968. Although that was unpopular, it was nothing compared to the backlash when Mrs Thatcher proposed cutting free school milk for younger 'junior school' pupils, aged seven and above.

Several Labour-controlled councils said they would ignore the change and continue to provide free school milk from other budgets, or by increasing the rates. They were warned of consequences if they deliberately broke the new law.

Defending the cut, Mrs Thatcher said that ending free milk for all but nursery and primary children would mean more money to spend on other areas of education, such as books and buildings. She said the cut would save about £9M. of the Government's annual £14M. school milk bill.

Opponents said the cut would affect the health and nutrition of Britain's poorest children and Labour's education spokesman said it was "the meanest and most unworthy thing" he had seen in 20 years as an MP, especially when combined with a proposed increase in the cost of school meals.

Both measures went through in September 1971 as part of a much wider package aimed at saving £200M. per year in public spending – the only way the Conservatives could meet their pre-election pledges on tax.

If Mrs Thatcher thought the issue would quickly go away, she was mistaken. The image of a cruel-hearted penny pincher snatching milk from children's mouths would haunt her throughout her political career. In 1985 Oxford University refused her an honorary degree in protest against her cuts in education, including free school milk.

Only after official Government documents were released under the 30-year rule did it emerge that Mrs Thatcher was not entirely the villain of the piece. Initially the proposal had been to cut free milk for all schoolchildren. She argued that would "arouse widespread public antagonism" and instead proposed the compromise to limit the cut to children over seven.

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