Berkhamsted Town Council’s cautious welcome for government’s food poverty pledge

England footballer Marcus Rashford led national calls for the ‘free school meals’ scheme to be extended nationally

Wednesday, 11th November 2020, 11:40 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th November 2020, 11:44 am

A Town Council on the edge of Hemel Hempstead – that has agreed to set aside a £10,000 package of support for struggling families over the Christmas holiday – has given a cautious welcome to the government’s new ‘Covid Winter Grant Scheme’.

At a meeting last week, Berkhamsted Town Council agreed that if no other agency stepped-up to the plate they would offer their own support to local families eligible for ‘free school meals’, in the form of vouchers to be distributed through schools or other agencies.

The move came as England footballer Marcus Rashford led national calls for the ‘free school meals’ scheme to be extended nationally, as it was when schools were closed during the last ‘lockdown’.

Lib Dem town councillor Nigel Taylor (the motion proposer) holding the motion

And at the same time calls for a county-wide system are set to be debated at an extraordinary meeting of Hertfordshire County Council, later this month.

At the weekend the government announced a package of measures including the £170m ‘Covid winter grant scheme’, designed to support children, families and the most vulnerable with food and bills.

The announcement has been given a cautious welcome by the Liberal Democrat chair of Berkhamsted Town Council Cllr Garrick Stevens.

But he says he expects the town council’s own £10,000 commitment to remain in place, until they have looked in detail at the government’s pledge.

“I think my colleagues and I will wait until we see the small print of the proposal, having agreed that we have this contingency fund,” he said.

“It’s then available to be drawn on, if the proposals are not broad enough to meet the requirements of people who are eligible for ‘free school meals’.

“We would like to believe that they will qualify – but it depends on how the government has set the rules for qualifying for support.

“We welcome that [the government] has decided to do the right thing. They should have agreed this two weeks ago.”

Members of Berkhamsted Town Council took the decision to fund additional vouchers for those Berkhamsted families who are eligible for free school meals, last week – in order to offer continued support during the Christmas holidays.

Lib Dem town councillor Nigel Taylor – who is also a member of Dacorum Borough Council – proposed the move to the virtual meeting of the council, on Tuesday (November 3).

Councillors agreed that vouchers would be distributed through schools or another suitable agency.

And they agreed that the support – taken from the council’s reserves – would only be made available if similar support was not offered by the government, the county council or another agency.

Following that meeting Liberal Democrat Cllr Nigel Taylor – who proposed the motion – said: “A lot of the councillors were concerned about the government’s failure to provide adequate coverage free school meals in holidays times.

“And therefore we wanted to be able to do something about it.

“We agreed that if central government and also Hertfordshire County Council did not agree to provide free school meals, then we would underwrite the cost of this – providing vouchers to children currently in receipt of free school meals over the Christmas holidays.”

Across Berkhamsted, the town council estimate there are 338 children who are eligible for free school meals. And councillors believe the voucher scheme could cost between £6000 and £7000 over the Christmas holidays.

Backing the move, chair of the town council Cllr Garrick Stevens, who is also a Liberal Democrat, says ‘holiday hunger’ is an issue that sits ‘below the radar’ for most of the population.

But he says that, with more and more people losing their jobs, it needs to be addressed.

And commenting on the decision of the town council to fund the vouchers, he said: “We can’t rely on national or local government – and it lies within our powers to do something for our community.”

Cllr Stevens also points to the role played by Marcus Rashford and to the increasing need for support.

“Unfortunately – with more and more people losing jobs – we are going to see more and more people turning to food banks and looking for similar support,” he said.

On Sunday, November 8, the government announced the latest package of measures designed to offer extra support to children and families this winter, ‘to ensure vulnerable households do not go hungry or without essential items’.

It includes £170m for the Covid Winter Grant Scheme, which the government says this will allow councils to directly help the hardest-hit families and individuals – as well as provide food for children who need it over the holidays.

And there will be a further £16million for food distribution charities.

Meanwhile as part of the package the holiday activities and food programme will be expanded during Easter, summer and Christmas holidays next year (2021) – at an estimated cost of up to £220m.