Brent councillor slams government over half-term school meals

Cllr Tom Stephens

Cllr Tom Stephens accuses government of 'abdicating responsibilities' over half term meal plans in schools - Credit: Cllr Tom Stephens

A senior Brent councillor accused the government of passing the buck after it announced schools would not be expected to provide free meals over February half-term.

Cllr Tom Stephens, cabinet member for education at Brent Council, said it was unfair to suggest local authorities should manage the service over this period using funding provided last year.

Guidance from the Department for Education stated schools do not need to provide free school meals or vouchers over half-term, pointing out there is wider support available outside of term time through the Covid winter grant scheme.

But Cllr Stephens believes it would be more appropriate to support families in need through regular payments.

He said: “Once again the government is abdicating its responsibility to support vulnerable children over the school holidays, leaving it to councils and local communities to step up to make up for their failures.

“We urgently need a national scheme to provide cash payments for free school meals, both during term time and at school holidays.

“The current proposals are an appalling insult to vulnerable families, both in Brent and across the country.

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“We should empower families to support their children through direct cash support during the pandemic, rather than demean them with food parcels.”

Last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially insisted free school meals would cease over the winter holidays.

Following strong opposition, led by footballer Marcus Rashford, he announced the £170 winter grant scheme in a high-profile U-turn.

The latest concerns held by Cllr Stephens follow on from the wider debate around food parcels being handed out to vulnerable families.

Pictures emerged recently of “inadequate” food parcels provided by government contractor Chartwells which prompted a U-turn, meaning families will now receive £15 food vouchers during term time as lockdown continues.

Cllr Stephens added: "There are 6,520 children in Brent on free school meals. As a result of support the council provided last year - when we stepped up to provide free school meals during half term - many of our schools are already operating a scheme to provide food vouchers for vulnerable children, empowering families and treating them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

"The government must immediately strengthen the national guidance and set the highest standards for food support for our most vulnerable.”

In a statement, the Department of Education said: "As was the case over Christmas, vulnerable families will continue to receive meals and other essentials over February half term via councils through the £170 million Covid Winter Grant Scheme launched last year."