Tory mayor bemoans Government’s ‘last-minute’ school meals decision-making

A Conservative mayor has criticised the Government’s “last-minute” decision-making on children’s free meals funding, as more councils announced half-term stop-gap measures.

West Midlands mayor Andy Street said: “It should not be a last-minute thing, this should be planned for, there should be a national approach on this.”

He added the lack of planning meant there was now an “indiscriminate arrangement” across the country as to whether free school meals would be provided over the break.

Mr Street said the Government should make “a clear decision” on whether it would or would not fund free school meals over holidays “well in advance”.

Asked if the Government should have to fund half-term meals, he said: “I think – at the last minute – you probably do have to fund it, is the answer to that.”

It comes as the Labour leader of Birmingham City Council pledged to provide 61,000 eligible youngsters with meals, while the mayor of Liverpool said he was “not prepared to stand by and watch”, as he announced £300,000 of funding.

Birmingham and Liverpool are among a number of local authorities that announced help for young people after Parliament rejected proposals to provide free meals to vulnerable children during the school holidays.

The Labour-led Liverpool authority is one of many struggling to cope with large budget deficits, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson told the PA news agency: “I am having budget meetings where I am struggling to find £20,000 in savings. But we had to find £300,000 to support 20,000 children in the city.

“I know what it’s like not to have food on the table… I know what it’s like to eat a jam butty for your tea. I know what it’s like. I have been there.

“I was brought up in poverty. I am not prepared to stand by and watch when I know families out there are really struggling, week in, week out for months now.”

The £15 supermarket vouchers will be distributed through children’s centres in the city from next Tuesday.

The Labour motion, prompted by a campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford, was defeated in the Commons by 261 votes to 322.

Five Conservative MPs broke ranks to support the bid with one, Caroline Ansell, resigning from a Government role in protest at her party’s position.

“They have got a Government that really doesn’t care and doesn’t understand,” Mr Anderson said.

Mr Anderson claimed it was “arrogance” for residents of the city to be treated in “such a distasteful way as to ignore our pleas and calls”.

He said: “There was 61 people who died last week, including Billy, my brother, from Covid in Liverpool. It’s heartbreaking.”

The city is under the highest level of coronavirus restrictions as the number of patients rose above levels seen during the peak of the first wave.

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Plymouth City Council has set up a support scheme for families of children entitled to free school meals during the October half-term.

The scheme, for around 9,000 children, will see families receiving £11 – equivalent to £2.20 – per day into their nominated bank account.

Jon Taylor, cabinet member for education, skills and transformation, said the authority was “pulling out all the stops” to ensure children in Plymouth did not go hungry over half-term.

Families will have to apply for the payment on the council’s website, where the scheme will be live from midday on Monday until November 9.

Cllr Taylor added that the council was also hoping to offer a “healthy food parcel” during the Christmas holidays.

Oldham Council in Greater Manchester will also be providing meals despite being under Tier 3 restrictions.

They are among more than 30 councils to step up and support families during the holidays alongside dozens of pubs, cafes and restaurants.

Cllr Ian Ward, Birmingham City Council leader, said: “This situation is unsustainable.

“They (the Government) cannot go on waiting until the very brink of school holidays before announcing they are not going to put any support in.

“We need a plan from the Government for the Christmas break.”

McDonald’s UK has also offered support to families, with the fast-food chain tweeting: “We are proud to announce a partnership with Fare Share UK to provide 1 million meals for families in need.

“Our funding will enable the urgent redistribution of meals across the next couple of weeks to those in greatest need.”

Downing Street declined to praise such outlets offering to provide free meals for vulnerable children over half-term.

A Number 10 spokesman, asked repeatedly if the Prime Minister welcomed the offer from businesses and some councils, said: “As we have set out before, we are in a different position now with schools back open to all and the vast majority of pupils back to school.

“I believe the PM said during PMQs that free school meals will continue during term time and that he wants to continue to support families throughout the crisis so they have cash available to feed kids if they need to.”

Labour-led Hammersmith and Fulham Council will give every pupil in need free school meal vouchers, equivalent to a £3 Tesco meal deal per day.

We're giving every pupil in need free meal vouchers over the half term break. That's to ensure 5,000 primary and secondary school pupils don't go hungry. Plus, we're delivering 600 breakfasts every morning to pupils. #ENDCHILDFOODPOVERTY

— H&F Council (@LBHF) October 22, 2020

Council leader Stephen Cowan said it was a “moral imperative” to ensure children get the food they need.

Southwark Council will also spend up to £10,000 issuing food vouchers to every eligible pupil to ensure they can get food over half-term.

Leader of Southwark Council Kieron Williams told PA: “Why wouldn’t you choose to feed hungry children? When you look at everything the Government has done to respond to this pandemic, this felt like one of the easiest choices they could have made to make sure children who need it most have food over this coming week.

“It would have been the right thing to do.”

Rashford, who was recently awarded an MBE after forcing a Government U-turn on free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays, said he was “blown away” by the offers of support from pubs, cafes and restaurants, and has been retweeting businesses offering free meals.

“Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know,” said the Manchester United footballer.