Free school meals plan for all Nottinghamshire primary pupils narrowly rejected by councillors
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The opposition Independent Alliance submitted a motion calling for a study into whether Nottinghamshire Council could offer free meals to all primary-aged children.
All infant school-aged pupils are eligible for free school meals but only children who meet specific criteria can access the service once they reach primary school age.
Criteria includes those families claiming various types of benefits including universal credit or jobseekers’ allowance.
Latest council figures show 26,669 local school-aged children were eligible and claiming free meals in May 2023.
The council motion came amid concerns about rising child poverty as separate figures suggested 52,029 children were living in poverty countywide last year.
The motion – proposed by Coun Francis Purdue-Horan (Ash Ind) and backed in full by Labour – asked for the Conservative-led council to explore taking further action.
They said the figures mean 25,360 children in Nottinghamshire are living in poverty but are not currently able to claim free school meals.
They asked the council to note the ‘impact of free school meals’ on supporting children’s life chances and to ‘investigate providing each primary pupil with a free school meal.
The motion did not propose enforcing the policy but asked for the council to look at process, cost and how to resource it’.
Coun Purdue-Horan said: “A primary headteacher told us they have an awful situation where children are turning up and begging for food at their breakfast club.
“Others turn up with no packed lunch and this leaves catering staff with heartbreaking situations of either turning them away or feeding them anyway, which is financially untenable.
“A move to universal free school meals would be a massive benefit to our young students.”
However, it was rejected by ruling Tories who questioned how the policy would be funded.
They referred to the scheme in London, suggesting it is funded in part by money made from ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) charges, and warned similar schemes or extra taxes may be needed to fund the free meal project.
Coun Ben Bradley MP (Con), the council’s leader, said the London free school meals scheme cost £130m to deliver in one year and says it would cost between £13m and £21m locally.
He also said some Nottinghamshire pupils ‘largely don’t need’ free school meals and taxpayers would not benefit from providing them with free food.
He added: “London Mayor Sadiq Khan is taxing drivers by £12.50 a day in order to provide £2.50 meals for rich families which they didn’t ask for.
“It is literally taxing the poor in order to feed the rich.
“This council will always focus its resources on those people who genuinely need our help, rather than those already managing fine.”
Many opposition councillors objected to the Conservatives’ reasons for rejection and suggested the ruling group turned the motion into a debate about ULEZ.
Coun Michael Payne (Lab), who represents Arnold North, said: “On the whole debate about ULEZ, I can see what you Conservatives are all trying to do because you’re so desperate you’re not going to win your Parliamentary constituencies or county divisions.
“You’re setting up a bogeyman and trying to scare people.”
The motion was narrowly defeated by 30 votes to 26.