Children in English infant schools will be eligible for free school meals under a £600 million plan announced by Nick Clegg.
The Deputy Prime Minister has made the scheme, which will save parents about £437 a year for each child, the key announcement of the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Glasgow.
The measure, which will come into effect next September, is aimed at helping families who are feeling the pinch from the rising cost of living, but it will also have education and health benefits, Mr Clegg said.
The Scottish Government will receive a 10 per cent equivalent, £60 million, but it is not yet clear if a similar initiative would be rolled out north of the Border.
The Scottish Government said that a quarter of primary school pupils currently receive free school meals and it was keen to expand on that, but would wait for full details of the announcement.
Mr Clegg struck the deal with the Conservatives in return for allowing them to press ahead with their plans for a tax break for married couples, a policy the Deputy Prime Minister had ridiculed as “Edwardian drivel” and which Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain from voting on in the Commons.
The free school meals plan will ensure a hot lunch is available to all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 – pupils aged between five and seven. It follows a Department for Education study earlier this year which showed the move produced considerable benefits.
Mr Clegg said: “My ambition is that every primary school pupil should be able to sit down to a hot, healthy lunch with their classmates every day. Millions of parents across the country are feeling the squeeze. Over the course of a year, families spend over £400 lunch money for each child.
“I am determined to do all we can to help put money back in the pockets of these families.
“We will start with infant school pupils because teaching healthy habits young, and boosting attainment early, will bring the biggest benefits.
“Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”
A senior party source said the policy was championed by the Lib Dems and was part of a “straight-up deal” with the Tories, who are expected to announce their marriage tax plan in the Autumn Statement at the same time as funding for the free school meals proposal is set out.
Mr Clegg will use his conference speech today to highlight the different priorities of the two governing parties, telling activists he would like to go further and provide free meals to all primary children.
He will say: “For the Liberal Democrats, this is a first step: my ambition is to provide free school meals for all primary school children. Another reason we want to get into government again next time round.
“The Conservatives, on the other hand, have made it clear that their priority is to help some families over others, with a tax break for married couples. A tax break for some, funded through the taxes of others. That tells you everything you need to know about their values.
“We, however, will help all families in these tough times, not just the kind we like best, by helping their young children get the best possible start in life – and that tells you everything about ours.”
The UK government will also end an anomaly to ensure disadvantaged college students will be entitled to free school meals on the same basis as their counterparts in school-sixth forms.
The Scottish Government said it was keen to expand free school meals provision.
A spokesman said: “Nearly a quarter of primary school pupils are currently registered for free school meals in Scotland. We are committed to expanding this provision further and, once we see the financial implications of this announcement for Scotland, we will examine how best to deliver that expansion.”