Anger as Nottinghamshire Tory councillor says more claiming free school meals should be celebrated
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He also said it was a ‘win-win’, because schools could access additional funding.
Coun Philip Owen made the comments during a Nottinghamshire County Council meeting when it was revealed there are now 3,000 more claimants than in January in the county.
As chairman of the children and young people’s committee on the Conservative-led council, Coun Owen is responsible for education.
Opposition councillors have reacted angrily to the comments, made during the Improvement and change sub-committee, calling them ‘disgraceful’.
The figures show in January, there were 18,319 free school meal (FSM) claimants in Nottinghamshire, and in October there were 22,294.
The highest number of FSM claimants was Ashfield, with 4,825 in October, followed by Mansfield, which had 4,182.
But the fastest rise was in Rushcliffe, which has seen a 32.8 per cent rise from the start of the year, and now has 1,758 claimants.
In total, there are now 22,294 free school meals claimants in Nottinghamshire, compared to 18,319 in January.
Coun Owen said: “There is a difference between eligibility and claiming.
“I welcome the fact that more parents whose children are eligible for free school meals are actually claiming them.”
“What we’ve had in the past is a reluctance on the part of a significant number of parents whose children would be eligible for those free meals to claim them, for whatever reason.
“The fact that more of them are actually claiming them now I think is something to be celebrated, because it means they will be getting good quality meals at lunch time.
“I would point out that we did support during the October half-term, and we have pledged to support over the Christmas holiday over 22,000 children, through whatever system the school puts in place.
“So I think that is to be welcomed rather than criticised.
“It also enables schools to claim pupil premium (additional funding) so it’s a win-win situation.”
Coun David Martin, who represents Selston for the Ashfield Independents, and who raised the issue of free school meals during the meeting, said: “For the Conservative councillor responsible for education in Nottinghamshire to claim that a rise in child poverty is a cause for celebration is disgraceful.
“He further claimed that a 35 per cent rise in free school meal claimants was a win-win situation.
“It just goes to show how out of touch the Conservatives are when it comes to real issues on the ground.
“In places like Ashfield and Mansfield, our poorest most vulnerable families have gone hungry during the pandemic – that is not a cause for celebration, is not a win-win situation and has been uttered by a man who doesn’t know what it’s like to wonder where the money is coming from to feed his family.
“I am staggered that he has these views – he is utterly out of step with reality.
“In all Coun Owen’s years as a teacher at Quarrydale School in Sutton-in-Ashfield, he must have had his blinkers on.”
Coun Kate Foale, deputy leader of the Labour group on the council, said: “Free school meals increasing clearly indicates rising levels of child poverty across Nottinghamshire and for Coun Owen to ‘celebrate’ that demonstrates a real lack of understanding and compassion for our most vulnerable children and their families.”
In a statement issued after the meeting, Coun Owen said: “We are really pleased that Nottinghamshire County Council will be receiving £2.3 million extra in targeted financial support for those in need over the winter period as part of the Covid Winter Grant Scheme available from December.
“Local authorities are able to determine how the funds are allocated in their area and we expect that approximately £1.1 million would be spent on the provision of food during Christmas and February half-term breaks, to those families where children are in receipt of free school meals due to the low income of the household.
“A further £650,000 would be targeted at vulnerable families with children with a professional such as a social worker, based on an assessment of need by the relevant professional.
“Then approximately £450,000 would be focused on individual households identified by professionals as being in urgent need. It is proposed that through the Local Resilience Forum’s Humanitarian Assistance Group, officers work with district and borough council partners to identify priority individuals for this portion of the grant and to issue vouchers and make appropriate payments.
“Once we have received more detail from the Department for Work and Pensions, we will work on further guidance to ensure that the money is fairly and consistently targeted to support the most vulnerable people of Nottinghamshire.”