'Hysterical response' in national press over call for more cash for free school meals in Central Beds

“Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook” says councillor
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A council leader described “the hysterical response which appeared in the national press” over Central Bedfordshire Council’s response to a motion calling for increased investment in free school meals.

And a Conservative colleague labelled it “deplorable” that neither the mover or seconder of the motion attended an executive committee meeting to debate the subject.

A political furore blew up when Independent Flitwick councillor Gareth Mackey’s motion to a full council meeting was deferred and then contrasted to the ruling group’s support for increases in councillor allowances.

Central Bedfordshire Council headquarters, Chicksands.Central Bedfordshire Council headquarters, Chicksands.
Central Bedfordshire Council headquarters, Chicksands.

The motion in September called on CBC to:

recognise the most severe impact of the cost of living crisis falls on those in our society with low incomes and those who may be dependent on benefits; appreciate that logically their children may rely on the free school meals programme to provide what can sometimes be the only substantial meal they receive in a day; understand that with substantial increases in the cost of raw ingredients, school catering departments are finding it more difficult to provide a decent and substantial meal on an already squeezed budget; resolve to provide a one time only budget uplift of ten per cent (£660,000) of the £6.6m school meals settlement accounted for in 2022/23; and agree this amount should be taken from new homes bonus reserves.

This motion fell within the remit of CBC’s executive because of its financial implications, according to a report to the committee.

The way free school meals are funded and catering suppliers are commissioned means extra funding as proposed is unlikely to have the desired effect, said the report.

“But the fundamental objective of improving access to high quality food for vulnerable children this winter can be achieved in other ways.

“Specific initiatives have been introduced to support vulnerable children and families through the winter, directly with food vouchers and indirectly by funding for foodbanks or helping with other essential bills.”

Conservative Flitwick councillor Neal Bunyan referred to the “sound and fury this motion has caused”, saying: “I find it deplorable that neither mover or seconder can find the time out of their busy schedules to attend this meeting to put forward their case.”

Conservative Dunstable Watling councillor Nigel Young explained: “The people who raised this were quick to support it on social media, but not so quick to come here and debate it.

“Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook. The administration has acted perfectly honourably in debating this via the executive.”

Conservative council leader and Arlesey councillor Richard Wenham added: “I hope the reporting of this meeting is rather more balanced than the hysterical response which appeared in the national press on this item.”

Independent Silsoe and Shillington councillor Alison Graham said: “My memory of the two lockdowns is this council has proved already the extent of its care for its most vulnerable families.

“I hadn’t realised what a complex process it would be and how arduous to get school meals funding increased.

“This is an excellent solution to a genuine question, which was more complicated than the person asking had understood.”