On This Day: Margaret Thatcher vows to ban free school milk

The future Prime Minister earned the nickname ‘Milk Snatcher Thatcher’ in doing so

On This Day: Margaret Thatcher vows to ban free school milk

June 15

: Margaret Thatcher promised to cut free school milk on this day in 1971 – sparking the first of many angry protests that characterised her political career.

The future Prime Minister, who was then serving as Education Secretary in Edward Heath’s Tory government, earned the nickname ‘Milk Snatcher Thatcher’ in doing so.

She wanted to stop a third of a pint being handed out to schoolchildren over the age of seven in a bid to save £9million a year – more than was then spent on books.

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During a fierce Parliamentary debate, Labour education spokesman Edward Short described the plans as “the meanest and most unworthy thing” he had seen as an MP.

This was despite his party’s 1968 ban on secondary pupils getting free milk – a tradition begun across all school ages in 1946 during the birth of the welfare state.

Mrs Thatcher, who went on to serve three terms as PM and died in April aged 87, eventually enacted the ban in September 1971.

But Labour was determined to find a way to continue providing free milk to schools in its local authorities – despite prosecution warnings.

A British Pathé newsreel shows a primary school in Woolwich, southeast London defiantly handing out free bottles to pupils in the playground at break time.

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Sir Ashley Bramall, the head of the Inner London Education Authority, is seen drinking milk from a champagne glass during the press launch.

A young boy delightedly tells the reporter he likes milk because “I like playing football and it builds me up and gives me muscles”.

When asked what is more important, having free milk or spending the money on schools, he astutely answers: “I suppose they’re just as important as each other.”

The ILEA, which until 1990 was the education authority for the 12 Inner London boroughs, was banned from buying and supplying the milk itself.

So 10 of the boroughs – those that were Labour-controlled – stepped in to fund the milk using taxpayers’ cash. The ILEA organised the delivery.

Westminster along with Kensington and Chelsea – the only two boroughs within Inner London that were run by the Conservatives at the time – refused to pay.

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The 20 Outer London boroughs could not follow suit and legally defy the ban since they all ran their own separate education authorities.

However, some councils found ways to get round it.

Famously, authorities in South Wales served milk with a tiny amount of cocoa and claimed it was hot chocolate.

Eventually, all these councils stopped providing free milk to all pupils and began giving it to only some, but the stage was set for future fights with central government.