Here's the transcript of our conversation with Dominic Cummings, former Special Adviser in Dept for Education about free school meals. Full report will be available on #wato website shortly http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03xd15z
Q: How did the policy come about in the first place?
A: Clegg's team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, 'you give me this and I'll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you'll have to force him.' The DfE wasn't told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.
Q: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?
A: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.
Q: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?
A: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn't be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.
Q: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)
A: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?
Q: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg's spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics - and starts every meeting saying 'I haven't been able to read the policy papers but let's talk about the politics' - he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn't. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and NOT CIVIL SERVANTS IN GENERAL AND THE DFE IN PARTICULAR.