Conservative leaders have knocked back calls to cancel a smart drinks reception following the decision not to fund free school meal vouchers for Norfolk's most vulnerable families over the Easter holidays.

The call to cancel the planned civic reception in Great Yarmouth was issued by Norfolk County Council’s (NCC) Liberal Democrat group, who said it would be “inappropriate” for the event to go ahead.

The fresh controversy follows the authority’s decision not to continue funding the voucher scheme for children on free school meals over the school break.

Lib Dem group leader Brian Watkins said: “The sight of councillors having a ‘knees up’ while families are making the decision whether to have the heating on or eat is not something we want to be a part of.

Eastern Daily Press: Brian Watkins, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council.Brian Watkins, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. (Image: Liberal Democrats)

“We would ask the chairman to donate the money that would have been spent on food and drink at the party to a local food bank or charity that is helping those people who are struggling to make ends meet during this cost of living crisis."

The council's annual civic reception will be hosted at Great Yarmouth Town Hall at 6.30pm on April 22, in the first week back from the Easter holidays.

All county councillors are thought to have been invited to the event, which is expected to include drinks and nibbles, and has a dress code of lounge suits, cocktail dresses and chains of office.

A spokesman for the council's ruling Conservative group responded: "This year’s civic reception marks the end of the chairman’s year and will be reflecting on the achievements of the business community of Norfolk and, in particular, major projects in Great Yarmouth, where she lives, which will benefit the local community.

"There is minimal financial cost of this event to which the chairman is contributing personally.

Eastern Daily Press: At six schools more than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals.At six schools more than half of pupils are eligible for free school meals. (Image: PA)

"The emergency services and the armed forces are areas the chairman has concentrated on during her time in this role.

"Members of these highly valued community services will be in attendance at this year’s civic reception as we want to pay respect to the work they’ve done before, during and after the pandemic."

He added that the Conservative administration "fully understands that the cost of living is directly impacting on people across our county."

NCC had provided the county’s lowest-income families with supermarket vouchers during every holiday since Christmas 2020, but decided to suspend the programme just ahead of the Easter break.

The council has suggested that families instead send their children on the Big Norfolk Holiday Fun programme of activities - which includes free lunches for children who receive free school meals in term time - or that they contact the Norfolk Assistance Scheme.

It has also committed to creating a new hardship scheme, using roughly £6.7m of funding from the government’s recently topped-up Household Support Fund, but the details of that scheme remain unclear.

The Conservative spokesman said this additional funding was "welcome" and that the council "will target this funding to those most in need, working effectively with all our partners and make it count in the same way as we have done before."

According to the BBC, every council in the East of England, except for Norfolk, has kept the scheme going.

The council’s Labour group had planned to call for NCC to provide parents with backdated vouchers to cover the current Easter holiday period, but the motion will not be discussed the council has confirmed.

The idea was proposed by councillor Mike Smith-Clare as an item of urgent business to be heard at the start of Monday’s (April 11) extraordinary meeting.

A county council spokeswoman said however that council chairman Penny Carpenter had considered the motion with NCC's monitoring officer, and that it would not be heard, because it had already been discussed at a meeting of the authority's cabinet, and the leader had made the council's position clear.

A petition calling on the council to reverse its decision to end the vouchers has now received more than 2,300 signatures from across the county.

Further information on the Big Norfolk Holiday Fun programme, which includes free lunches for those eligible for free school meals, can be found here:

Further information on the Norfolk Assistance Scheme, for those facing financial hardship, can be found here: