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UK Confidential Monday, 1 January, 2001, 00:48 GMT
The truth about Thatcher Thatcher milk snatcher
Milk bottles
Gotta lotta bottle - unless you were under seven-years-old
The one political decision that cemented the left's view of Margaret Thatcher nine years before she entered Number 10 as prime minister was the one that left her dubbed "Thatcher, Thatcher Milk Snatcher". But documents published today reveal that she was considering cuts elsewhere at the same time...

As Sir Edward Heath's Conservatives took power from Harold Wilson in June 1970, the economic outlook was looking bleak.

Wilson's government appeared to have postponed some key economic decisions because of the General Election - and the Conservatives were looking for cuts to meet election pledges on tax.

The most infamous cut of all was the Department of Education's decision to end universal free school milk- taken by Secretary of State Margaret Thatcher.

But documents released under the 30-Year-Rule paint a more complicated picture of what the future prime minister was prepared to sign up to.

Shortly after election, Prime Minister Heath wrote to his cabinet, telling them: "We shall need determination and a willingness among spending ministers to accept reductions in programmes which, from a departmental stand point, they would be reluctant to make."

And in August 1970, the new Secretary of State for Education responded to a Treasury demand for education cuts in four areas:

  • Further Education fees
  • Library book borrowing charges
  • School meal charges
  • Free school milk

    In principle, the minister who became known for her public-spending cutting zeal once she took power in 1979, appeared concerned at what the public perception of the cuts would be.

    Responding to the demands to end free school milk, Mrs Thatcher said: "I think that the complete withdrawal of free milk for our school children would be too drastic a step and would arouse more widespread public antagonism than the saving justifies."

    She proposed the compromise, later accepted, that milk would only be available to pupils in nursery and primary schools.

    She told the Treasury that this would reduce the proposed cuts by 20m over the four-year life of the government and would free up cash for a new primary school building programme.

    Museum charges

    On library book charges, Mrs Thatcher's response appeared to be set harder against their introduction.

    margaret Thatcher in the 1970s
    Margaret Thatcher: Baulked at library charges
    "I foresee real difficulties here," she wrote tot he Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Maurice Macmillan.

    "It would be a serious step to abandon the time-honoured principle of free borrowing from public libraries and I think that the issue should be put before the collective judgement of our colleagues."

    Crucially though, she added a new proposal which may have proved just as controversial had it gone ahead.

    "To compensate for this, I am willing to include in my review the imposition of entrance charges to the national museums..."

    School meals

    Despite these reservations, the minister did support increasing charges for school meals - but in a carefully managed way to avoid public protest.

    "I think that we should proceed by fewer and larger steps so as to reduce the occasions for the inevitable recurrence of criticism whenever an increase is made in school meal charges," she wrote.

    "On this footing, I propose raising the charge to 12p next April and to 14p in April 1973; over the four year period 1971-74 this will produce 16m more in savings then (sic) would your own proposals."

    Cabinet offers

    By the Cabinet meeting of September 15, Mrs Thatcher appeared to be more enthusiastic about cuts to her department's bill.

    "The Secretary of State for Education and Science said that she had been able to offer the Chief Secretary, Treasury, rather larger savings than he had sought on school meals, school milk, further education and library charges," the minutes reveal.

    Those cuts would be worth some 200m to the government - though some would go back into primary schools.

    Despite concerns about the proposals for school meal charges, the Cabinet supported the package, excepting library fees, two weeks later.

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