County council promise they have plans for free school meals in Northamptonshire this Christmas

The conference also learned what "close work" our seven MPs did to make it happen...

Friday, 30th October 2020, 5:47 pm
Updated Friday, 30th October 2020, 5:48 pm
The county council will fund free school meals in Northamptonshire over the Christmas holiday.

Northamptonshire's disadvantaged children will receive free school meals over Christmas this year, the county council has said.

Following on from delivering the scheme on Tuesday this week (October 27), the county council says it is now working on a plan to fund the £15 meal vouchers for breadline families over the Christmas holidays.

The free school meals debate has dominated headlines in the last two weeks since an opposition motion in Parliament to extend the scheme over every school break until Easter was voted down by MPs.

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At a press conference today (October 30), cabinet member for children and families Fiona Baker said: "As far as Christmas is concerned, we have decided [...] that we ought have a plan in place for Christmas.

"We are putting those plans together now and we will be speaking to all the districts and boroughs ourselves, because I know they are all ready to help us with this position and fund the two weeks for the Christmas holidays."

The county council came under scrutiny this week after it announced it would fund the meals over this half term on October 23 and was unable to provide an update until five days later.

Councillor Baker said that the delay was caused because the council had to ask schools first-hand for which children were eligible.

She said: "These are unprecedented times and when I had the thought that we should [fund the meals] I did have to take it to the leader and the chief executive of the council, and my cabinet colleagues all agreed we should do it.

"From then we had to get permission for funding. We had to check that the Covid funding grant that we have received at the county council was eligible to use.

"So it took a few days to organise. But it is unfortunate and I do agree that we did put an awful lot of pressure on our staff because it meant that we had to work through to find the eligible people when our schools had to close down - the county council does not hold that data.

"A number of very dedicated headteachers joined us over the weekend, and two members of our staff in the education team worked exceedingly hard to find these eligible people and great praise goes to them.

"That was the reason why [...] it didn't happen until Tuesday."

As of October 29, the council has had 11,788 eligible applications for free school meals, amounting to 69 per cent of all eligible cases in Northamptonshire.

Councillor Baker said: "We have backdated it to the beginning of the week so nobody lost out.

"All those who haven't had the opportunity to apply will be encouraged to do so through their school and we will fund the £15 vouchers to all of those eligible people."

Meanwhile, the Chronicle & Echo asked councillor Baker what role Northamptonshire's seven MPs had had in the free school meals scheme so far.

All seven of the county's MPs voted down the motion last week.

But after the council announced it would fund the meals, several county MPs - including Andrew Lewer, Michael Ellis Peter Bone - tweeted they had each "worked closely" with the council to plan the scheme.

When asked what work the MPs had done, Fiona Baker said: "Paying for school meals is obviously not something that the county council normally do and there was an element that we did contact all of our MPs to tell them what we were doing in advance of announcing it to the public.

"We said this is what we had in mind to do and they said that's what we should use our Covid grant money for."

Councillor Ian Morris added: "I have to say there is a definite difference between national politics and local politics, the way certain decisions are made, and I think we'll leave it at that."