Agenda item


This report advises the Committee of a petition received by the Council which falls within the remit of this Committee including a summary of the response sent to the petition organiser by officers.





Members considered a report which advised the Committee of a petition received by the Council which fell within the remit of the Committee, including a summary of the response sent to the petition organisers by officers.


The lead petitioner was invited to speak to explain why the petition had been referred to the Committee and made the following points:


  • An electronic vote was run, and an additional 909 votes were gathered in support of the petition


  • The number of children eligible for Free School Meals had risen from 6000 to 11000 since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic.


  • Low-income households continue to be impacted by the rise of national inflation at 10%, rising energy costs, 11 million people behind on their bills and 15 million people using credit as a means to pay for essentials.


  • Many families were at a loss as to how they would manage over the school summer holidays without the Free School Meals (FSM) voucher scheme.


  • There had been an absence of information on the decision that the FSM Vouchers would cease and would no longer be issued. When officers were questioned at the June Committee meeting, they said that the voucher scheme would continue.


  • The system where families received FSM vouchers automatically had been replaced with an application for Household Support Fund (HSF), access to which was a confusing and bureaucratic process.


  • 11,000 children in Medway were eligible for FSM and only 774 benefitted from the HSF over the summer period.


  • £350k of unused funds had been returned to Central Government.


  • The HSF, how to apply and eligibility criteria had not been adequately publicised by the Council.


  • A significant number of Local Authorities continued to fund the vouchers over the school holiday period for eligible families.


  • A political decision had been made by the Council not to fund FSM holiday voucher and this must be looked at from the perspective of families of Medway who relied on the vouchers


In discussing the petition, the following responses were made to comments from Members:


Rising costs - the challenges in rising costs was recognised and whilst the voucher scheme was beneficial for families during the school holiday period, there was a need for a more sustainable way forward to support families that was not just focused on school holiday periods.


Communication - on 5 May 2022, the announcement was made by Central Government that the FSM holiday voucher scheme would be ending and this was subsequently communicated to schools that it would not be continued by the Council but it was acknowledged that this may not have been done with adequate notice for families to prepare and lessons had been learnt which officers undertook to address in future decisions.


Misinformation – in response to a request for an apology due to the misinformation provided,  it was explained that officers had provided information based on their understanding of what had occurred at the time, the information given was real time information which did change as things progressed.


Medway’s decision not to continue with the FSM scheme – whilst it was acknowledged that some local authorities had decided to continue with the provision of universal FSM vouchers, 50% of Councils in England had also decided not to continue to fund the scheme. The focus for Medway was to look at long term measures to support families to access ongoing support for the issues they were facing as a result of the cost of living crisis. As a result, the Medway Go Programme was beneficial in not only providing support to FSM eligible children with access to a nutritious meal, but other social opportunities.  The scheme had enabled other services to be commissioned for families.


The HSF was not a means to replace the FSM voucher scheme and that was why there was an application process in place to ensure that people that needed the funding were able to access it.


Members were reminded that Medway GO and HSF were two separate programmes, to which families could apply for both without any restrictions.


Return of funds to Central Government – it was acknowledged that £350k was returned to Government due to the lack of receipt of applications from local people. There was a balance to be struck to ensure that the funds were disseminated to the right people. The funding element and guidance on grants constantly changed. There was more to be done to communicate with residents and simplify the process going forward.


Lessons learnt – it was agreed by all officers that there were always lessons to be learnt and processes would continue to be reviewed internally as well as by looking at the actions taken by other LAs across the country to see what could be done better for the people of Medway.


Following debate, a Member put forward a motion that had been shared with the Committee via email and circulated in writing at the meeting.  The motion, which was seconded, read as follows:


“The Committee notes the decision taken by the leader under urgency provisions on 26th April and concludes that the decision not to fund vouchers for children eligible for free school meals over the summer holiday period should have not been taken and that funding for free school meals should have been made available.  The reasons for this are as follows:


  • Funding for free school meals would have been easily administered support for a readily identifiable cohort of families who fall into a recognised category of hardship;
  • Funding support for free school meals during school holidays started during the pandemic.  The loss of the Universal Credit uplift and the continuing cost-of-living crisis has increased considerably the financial pressures on families since then.  There is no logic to refusing support for families when financial hardship is greater for them now than during the pandemic;
  • The number of Medway children eligible for free school meals has increased from 6,000 to 11,000 since the pandemic and from below average across local authorities to above average;
  • The council response states that food is provided as part of the MedwayGo programme, but there are insufficient places to accommodate all children in Medway who are eligible for free school meals on MedwayGo;

The Committee notes also that the Council Response to the petition states that families could apply over the summer holiday period for financial support from the Household Support Fund to alleviate hardship.  However:

  • No public formal announcement was made that this provision was available;
  • Councillors, officers, schools and parents were not made aware of the decision and its implications;
  • No administrative systems or publicity were put in place before the summer holiday period.


The Committee further recommends to Cabinet that where future funding is provided by the Household Support Fund or other government support, that free school meals provision should be made available during the holiday periods”.


This motion was not supported upon being put to the vote.


In accordance with Council rule 12.6, Councillors Cooper, Howcroft-Scott, Johnson, Osbourne and Van-Dyke requested that their votes for this motion be recorded.


It was then moved and seconded that the Committee note the petition referral request in paragraph 3, and the Director of Public Health’s response, including the acknowledgement from officers that lessons had been learned.


On being put to the vote this motion was approved.




The Committee noted the referral request in paragraph 3 of the report, and the Director of Public Health’s response, including the acknowledgement from officers that lessons had been learned.


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