Surrey councillors have voted down giving funding support to set up school breakfast clubs.
Liberal Democrat councillor Fiona White put forward a proposal that Surrey County Council (SCC) should make a one-off payment to schools in need, to help encourage all schools to set up breakfast clubs so children do not go hungry.
But cabinet member for children, young people and families, Mary Lewis, proposed deleting the suggestion of encouraging breakfast clubs and 72 per cent (54 of 75) councillors voted to accept this amended version.
Cllr White, who represents Guildford West, said: “It was the situation with Covid-19 that brought the issue of child poverty and particularly of free school meals into focus, but child poverty didn’t begin there.
“It has been a growing problem for a long time, and it’s likely to get worse, as the consequences of the pandemic work their way through society.”
The number of people claiming Universal Credit has risen in some parts of Surrey by 300 per cent during the pandemic.
“They live in all our divisions and not just those usually considered to have been deprived,” said Cllr White.
She wanted the council to lobby the government to consider reforms to Universal Credit and minimum wage, which she considered to be ‘inadequate’ and ‘fundamental causes of child poverty’.
And Cllr White asked for a report to be done on child poverty in Surrey and a commitment in their next year’s budget to fund actions to address the issue. But all of this was struck out in the amendment.
Cllr Lewis, who represents Cobham, said Cllr White’s motion ‘fell short’ and ‘rushed to a quick solution’. She said it was ‘too simplistic’ because poverty involved more than food, and a ‘system-wide response’ was needed.
Want to have your say? Head to the comments section to share your views.
Cllr Lewis said: “The only long-term solution to poverty affecting children is having a buoyant Surrey economy with good levels of stable employment, and that’s the work of the One Surrey Growth Board [set up this summer to respond to economic challenges and opportunities] is so important for helping children and young people fulfil their potential in future.
“We need to grow a sustainable economy so everyone can benefit, that’s the priority that we have in the council.”
Cllr Julie Iles, cabinet member for all-age learning, agreed she thought the original motion’s scope was too narrow. She said: “The winter grant scheme demonstrates the power of a coordinated response with school leaders and partners.”
SCC is due to receive the first half of £2.2 million from the government’s Covid-19 winter support grant, most of which it will use to give food vouchers to all of Surrey’s 17,000 children eligible for free school meals, throughout the Christmas holidays.
The grant money runs out at the end of March 2021. Cllr Lewis’s amendment replaced lobbying government for welfare reform with lobbying them to ‘continue to fund local government appropriately to mitigate the social effects of Covid-19, especially those affecting children and families’.
For Cllr White’s statement that ‘breakfast clubs make a huge difference not just to pupil wellbeing but also to the quality of learning and other outcomes’, the amendment replaced ‘breakfast clubs’ with ‘system-wide initiatives delivered through early years settings, schools, health settings, family centres and elsewhere’.
Find out how you can get more news from SurreyLive straight to your inbox HERE.
She told the council that such initiatives would make good use of data collected in a community impact assessment of the pandemic.
Cllr White described the amendment as ‘business as usual’, while Robert Evans, Labour councillor for Stanwell, described it as a ‘disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from a real need’. A former headteacher, he added: “I know the value of breakfast clubs.”
Caterham councillor Chris Botten said: “The Surrey Growth Board won’t solve Surrey’s economic problems in January.”
He urged councillors to support Cllr White’s motion. “It is practical and will catch people when they fall,” he added.
It was seconded by Will Forster, councillor for Woking South, who said: “By ensuring every child is well-fed we can make sure they get the most out of their education.
“As someone who was on free school meals as a child, I know how important this.”
After it was voted off the table, Cllr Lewis’s amendment was agreed by everyone, except for four councillors who abstained.
After the meeting, Cllr White said: “While it’s disappointing that we had to support the Conservatives’ watered-down version of our original motion to get it through and that the Tories removed most of the more robust actions we proposed, it is at least better than nothing.
“So many fellow councillors spoke powerfully on this issue and recognised that while there is some good work being done in the background, what we as Lib Dems were looking for, was some practical steps that would have an immediate impact on Surrey’s children in need.”