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Councillors walk out in protest amid free school meal frustration

There were dramatic scenes at County Hall as all opposition councillors walked out in protest after the Conservative administration refused to debate its decision to slash free school meal vouchers.
School meal protests Norfolk

There were dramatic scenes at County Hall as all opposition councillors walked out in protest after the Conservative administration refused to debate its decision to slash free school meal vouchers.

The Labour group had called for the debate on the authority’s controversial move not to continue funding the voucher scheme for children on free school meals over the Easter holidays. 

The debate was rejected by the chairwoman, Penny Carpenter, following advice from council officers.

Steve Morphew, the leader of the Labour group said he “strongly disagreed with the decision” calling the lack of debate “no service to anybody”.

“The alternative provision falls well short of what is needed,” he said.

“The Labour group will spend the day supporting families the administration is not just failing to support adequately but they’re refusing to discuss their plight and how best to help them.”

Mr Morphew said around 27,000 children will be left without support, which he branded “seriously not good enough”.

After leaving the council chamber, Mr Morphew and the Labour group went to support a food bank in Gorleston.

The council has suggested that families who have previously used the vouchers should 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.  

Before his group left the chamber, Brian Watkins, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, spoke of his disappointment, calling the issue “as urgent as it gets”. 

He said: “Thousands of Norfolk families are worried sick about how to make ends meet not just in the coming couple of weeks but in the grim months that lie ahead of us all.” 

The Lib Dems were followed out of the council chamber by the Green group and independent councillor Alexandra Kemp. 

Speaking after the meeting, Jamie Osborn, a Green councillor said: “It sickens me that Conservative councillors can sit there and pretend there isn’t an issue that is worth debating.”

Other opposition councillors, including the Lib Dems Sharon Blundell and Ms Kemp, said they would also be using their allowance – what councillors receive instead of pay – to support families in need.

Following the opposition’s departure, the meeting continued but all business was withdrawn.

Graham Plant, the deputy leader, criticised those who walked out, calling it an “abysmal way to show respect to this council”.

“There are a lot more people than just children with school meals, who will benefit from the moneys that the council is going to distribute. There are disabled people, there are the older generations.

“There’s a whole raft of people that are going to benefit from this money that we are going to put out over the next few months, not just children with school meals, so I think it’s an appalling way of acting.” 

Ahead of the meeting – Cedar, 10 and Eris, seven – two children who will be affected by the cuts handed over a petition to Daniel Elmer, the deputy cabinet member for children’s services, calling for the vouchers to be reinstated.

The petition has been signed by more than 2,500 people.

Following a U-turn by Peterborough City Council earlier this month, Norfolk now appears to be the only council in the East of England to be cutting the scheme.

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