Use of £2.75m to help vulnerable defended amid school meals row
- Credit: PA
The way more than £2.75m is being spent to help vulnerable families in Norfolk during the coronavirus pandemic - which did not include using it to provide free school meals for children in the holidays - has been defended by council leaders.
The government extended free school meals to eligible children during the Easter holidays and, after a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford, also did so in the summer holidays.
But it has refused to extend the scheme - and calls have been made for Norfolk County Council to use money it got from the government to provide them.
However, Andrew Proctor, the Conservative leader at County Hall, previously said that money was not meant to be used for that purpose - even though some councils are providing vouchers for meals over Christmas holidays.
And, at a meeting of the county council cabinet on Monday, Mr Proctor defended the way the council has used money to support vulnerable families.
Mr Proctor said: “Concerns have been raised locally and nationally about the best way to support our residents and communities as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
“The government has put in substantial support to children and families through the benefits system and local government’s support has been in addition to that.
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“The council’s Norfolk Assistance Scheme, which has been in place since 2013, provides emergency cash or food and essential household items such as white goods and beds.
“Recognising the pressure people of all ages would be under, we set aside £500,000 from government Covid-19 funds to add to the existing £1.15m annual Norfolk Assistance Scheme budget to provide advice and support to people.
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“In the period from April to September we spent £625,000 from this fund helping people with food, fuel, exceptional household items and other welfare support.
“The remainder of the £1.15m core budget and the additional £500,000 is forecast to be spent by the end of March in order to address the increasing demand for those families and individuals in financial crisis.
He said £120,000 was being used to help support people with benefits claims and £100,000 to the Norfolk Community Foundation to support their work and help take their fund to over £1m.
He said the £1.016m Emergency Assistance Grant from the government for food and essential supplies was not ring-fenced, but was not meant to be used to duplicate the government’s free school meal voucher scheme.
He said the fund had been mainly used to support people with “Covid-related rent arrears” and to help the most vulnerable people buy food and cover household bills.
He said payments and equipment, such as laptops, had been given to 676 people , at a cost of £170,000, including £157,000 for food, fuel and essential household items, £6,000 for digital equipment for education, and £7,000 to cover rent arrears.
He said a further £144,000 was set aside for laptops and other digital support, to expand the group of children from disadvantaged families who can access education online and maintain social contact as well as assisting people in financial crisis into work.
He said more than £500,000 was committed to cover food, energy household equipment and rent arrears for the period through to March and a further £200,000 for the Norfolk Community Foundation.
But Labour’s Mike Smith-Clare said: “We don’t trust these figures. But even by his own figures children went hungry during half term, while Mr Proctor sat on a pile of money designed for emergency help to provide food.
“What values does this represent? How can anyone justify not helping families feed their children with money given them by government?”
And Liberal Democrat Brian Watkins said: “How can other councils such as Lib Dem run Portsmouth and indeed many others - directly manage to help children from going hungry - and yet Norfolk just offers a general fund to cover all sorts of different things?”
But Mr Proctor said the way the council was using the “not insignificant” sum of money was the best way to help vulnerable families.