Row over Northumberland's 'ill-considered' response to free school meals gap

The issue of free school meals has dominated headlines for days.The issue of free school meals has dominated headlines for days.
The issue of free school meals has dominated headlines for days.
Northumberland councillors have been given a chance to fund free school meals during holidays, but the lack of a universal offer has been slammed.

The issue has become a major political flashpoint after the Government opposed providing children eligible for free school meals with food vouchers as they did during the summer holidays.

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However, the Conservatives were whipped to vote against the motion, with Ministers saying that the Government was providing the necessary support in other ways, such as the Universal Credit system and additional funding to councils.

A number of businesses in Northumberland have stepped up with offers to help feed children this week, as they have done nationwide, while local authorities elsewhere, including North Tyneside, Newcastle and Durham, have decided to run their own schemes.

On the eve of half term, Sunday, October 25, Northumberland County Council did not make a similar commitment, but said it was expanding the remit of the members’ small schemes allowance and other grants to enable all councillors to support town and parish councils, as well as community groups, with specific grants for Covid-related financial support.

The grants of up to £2,000 are to ‘assist recipient organisations to help families who need support’ and ‘there will be a range of options which may include food parcels and/or food purchases through the use of vouchers’.

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Council leader Glen Sanderson said: “We recognise and understand the real difficulties and hardship that Covid is causing for some of our residents. We are doing all we can to help them, and we will continue to do so.

“From the very start of the pandemic, through our Northumberland Communities Together initiative, we have been connecting with residents in need seven days a week to ensure they receive help and support to keep them safe and well.

“In addition to this, we have just expanded the scope of our members’ small grant scheme to reflect the challenges local communities and groups are facing around the current pandemic.”

However, this move has been met with criticism from opposition councillors due to the lack of a countywide, as well as the timing and nature of the announcement.

The leader and deputy leader of the Labour group, Cllrs Susan Dungworth and Scott Dickinson, told Cllr Sanderson that ‘it appears that the council is not taking this issue seriously and is not going to provide universal support for families in receipt of free school meals as other councils in the North East, and indeed the whole country, are doing’.

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They added: “It is not the responsibility of ward councillors nor the appropriate use of the small schemes allowance to fund vouchers for families, nor do the vast majority of town or parish councils have the capacity to do so.

“Members’ small schemes are already used to fund a wide range of improvements in their ward that the county council fails to include in its programmes of work.

“Surely you cannot expect members to make that £15,000 carry out capital improvement works and feed struggling families? Although we do appreciate that many of them have already tried to do this to compensate for the lack of interest being shown by your administration.”

Cllr Steven Bridgett, an independent, added: “While I admire the principle behind this and I’m sure your intentions are well-meaning, it just seems rushed and ill-thought-out.

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“Coming to us with this proposal less than 24 hours before the first child will need a meal and on a Sunday (when little can be done) is just ridiculous.”

He was also critical of the council immediately announcing the scheme on its social-media channels, saying: “Effectively what you have done is put the onus on us elected members, as a result of this Government and your administration failing to take strategic action on the matter and fund this directly.”

Another councillor agreed, saying: “Any member who hasn’t got anything left or who has committed all their funding is going to seem very hard-hearted after such a public announcement.”

The county council also said that it is in the process of examining other sources of funding, including the Hardship Fund, to help alleviate difficulties caused by Covid-19.

“The coronavirus pandemic has been a very challenging time for everyone, but especially so for the most vulnerable in our community,” Cllr Sanderson added. “The welfare of our residents is our top priority and we will continue to do all we can to support them through this difficult time.”

Meanwhile, in a reflection of the growing dismay at the Government’s decision, two Conservative-controlled councils in the county had already opted to set up their own schemes.

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On Saturday, October 24, Cramlington Town Council announced that it will be offering vouchers for every child that lives in the town who is eligible for free school meals as a result of qualifying due to household income.

Mayor Loraine De Simone said: “As a town council, our main duty of care is to our residents and we are very aware that some people are going to struggle to provide food for their children during the upcoming school holidays and also during the Christmas break.

“To that end, we have created a fund that will cover the cost of a £20 voucher for each week of the school holidays for every eligible child.

“All town councillors are backing this initiative – it is not a matter for politics, it is a case of us working together to do what we think is right for our community.”

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Morpeth Town Council followed suit by announcing a similar £20 voucher scheme and parents should contact 01670 514314 or [email protected]

Cramlington parents can contact 01670 707831 from 9.30am to 11am and 1.30pm to 3.30pm, Monday to Friday, or [email protected] anytime.

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