Scottish parents face rising school milk costs following the Brexit vote because of a loss of EU subsidies, The Ferret has learned.
In recent years, school milk subsidies, said to be worth around £600,000 – £700,000 a year in total to Scottish parents, have mostly been funded by an EU-wide funding scheme, with devolved nations paying around a fifth of the costs.
The UK Government has committed to making up the EU subsidy shortfall for English school pupils in the 2020/21 school year.
However, opposition politicians and charities have raised concerns that the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales have not made the same commitment.
As a consequence, Scottish local authorities are raising prices of school milk by as much as 19% compared with previous years. The move has been criticised by Scottish Labour and Scottish children’s charity, Children in Scotland.
An email sent to parents of Haddington Primary School in East Lothian at the start of the new school term blamed the price rise on Brexit. It said: “The daily cost of milk from August 2020 will be 25p per 189ml carton. As we are now no longer able to claim a subsidy in view of us leaving the EU.”
The cost of school milk in the area is to rise from 21p to 25p per carton – an inflation-busting 19% increase.
"The Scottish Government should certainly match the investment being made elsewhere in the UK in keeping the price low and therefore accessibility high.”
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour Shadow Education Spokesperson
A spokesperson for East Lothian Council confirmed the local authority had already decided that it will not step in to cover any subsidy shortfall for pupils that do not qualify for free school meals.
Therefore most parents must cover the increased costs if they want their children to continue to have morning milk.
The National Farming Union in Scotland’s (NFUS) Milk Committee chair Gary Mitchell, a dairy farmer from Stranraer, claimed that the milk subsidy schemes were “important” as they helped children make a connection with local farmers and food producers in Scotland.
“The old and new science clearly suggests dairy produce is good for children and is a vital cog in a healthy diet,” he said. “The scheme is also a fantastic opportunity for children to make a connection with the farming world and food supply chain in Scotland.
“Milk, hard cheese and yogurt remain the main providers of calcium and iodine to the UK diet. Childhood is an important time for growth and development and getting enough calcium is an essential part of building bones.
He added: “NFUS has been in dialogue with Scottish Government on this issue on several occasions since 2017. We are now in conversation with them about their plans post-Brexit as support for school milk delivers significant health benefits.”
Amy Woodhouse, head of policy, projects and participation at the national charity Children in Scotland, said that the sudden rise in school milk fees will hit some families hard on top of the “continuing impact of the coronovirus on daily life”.
“The decision to withdraw subsidised milk in some of our schools highlights the sources of financial support associated with EU membership that may be overlooked, and which have contributed to the health and wellbeing of children in Scotland for decades,” she said.
The charity is working with The Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights to support the work and of the Children and Young People’s Panel on Europe.
“The Panel is calling for the Scottish Government to maintain the same levels of funding post-Brexit for youth work, and services supporting health, that have been in place through the UK’s membership of the EU,” she added.
“Given the health benefits associated with school milk, we view this as an example of where the Scottish Government should commit to continued financial support after the transition period ends.”
Subsidised school milk has a long history throughout the UK. First introduced in 1934, it became a popular public health measure. In 1971, former Conservative Party prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was Education Secretary in the early 1970s, ended free school milk for children over the age of seven.
This earned the MP the nickname “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher,” from opponents. EU subsidies for school milk date back to 1977.
It was re-instated in 2006 and is served in schools either in the morning or with lunch.
Scottish Labour education spokesperson and East Lothian MSP Iain Gray said: “The provision of milk in school has a long history.
“The Scottish Government should certainly match the investment being made elsewhere in the UK in keeping the price low and therefore accessibility high.”
The Scottish Government did not respond to questions from The Ferret about whether UK Government subsidy provided to schools in England would generate an increase in the money provided to the Scottish Government through the Barnett Formula.
The Scottish Government also declined to confirm the value of the subsidy it had provided to Scottish schools in addition to EU subsidies in previous years.
Instead, Scottish Government officials provided a letter, sent from the Deputy First Minister John Swinney to Scottish local authorities in June.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “Regrettably, this is a consequence of the UK Government’s approach to Brexit – the European Commission has decided the UK will no longer be able to claim for subsidy under the EU School Milk scheme from October 2020.
“We would expect the UK Government to cover the costs.”
The UK Government did not respond to The Ferret’s questions about whether UK Government funding for English school milk would generate corresponding funding for Scotland through the Barnett Formula.
A UK Government spokesperson said: “School milk is a devolved issue and any decisions on funding would be a matter for the Scottish Government.
“We have committed to funding England’s school scheme for the academic year ahead, and have already ensured the Scottish Government has domestic powers to support their own decision-making.”