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Cambridgeshire County Council opposition Tory leader questions holiday food vouchers for needy families

‘ I do think that there’s a certain amount of responsibility for parents having their own children’

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Tory opposition leader Steve Count says he remains unsure about the merits of a scheme that provides holiday food vouchers for families who receive free school meals. Cambridgeshire County Council has stepped in with £3m to maintain provision after the Government dithers over whether to continue with the Household Support Fund that has previously paid for it.

Until now the £180 a year cost has been mainly met by the fund but without Government support the county council insists the scheme will continue but to the tune of £135 per family.

Cllr Count, challenging the council’s budget proposals across a swathe of issues, homed in on the voucher scheme during a meeting of the strategy and resources committee.

At one point he criticized the alliance led council for not telling parents early on about the £45 reduction and suggested an impact assessment should have been conducted.

“I don’t suppose many parents in this county sit and watch this, the joys of a council tax debate, a business plan debate, but if you’re going to cut their holiday voucher entitlement from £180 to £135, I do think that you should let them know – issue a publication which will help them plan their year,” he said.

“I’m not saying I ever supported £180 as I do think that there’s a certain amount of responsibility for parents having their own children.

“However, I’m not here to say yes or no about that; what I am here is to advise you that if you’re going to make this sort of cut that directly affects individual families then I think that there is an onus on you to actually do something about it in terms of informing them as early as possible.”

Cllr Count said: “I don’t remember picking this up elsewhere at the children’s committee or anyone else so can we know why and when this cut was made and also if it’s being made here I don’t think I’ve picked up on a community impact assessment.”

However chief executive Stephen Moir had to explain to him that the difference in this instance was that the county council is placing its own money behind the continuation of this scheme which is to the order of £135.

“The previous £180 figure relates directly to the funding that was given by government so there was a difference in the allocation

“As I think members will be aware the funding being provided for by government is due to come to an end therefore the county council proposed budget includes continuation of that using our own revenue.”

He said the council “are unable to match the same level as Government because of our overall financial position and balancing that out against other priorities so the £135 is in effect the best use we can make of council revenue to continue a scheme that clearly supports individuals.”

Cllr Bryony Goodliffe, chair of the children and young people’s committee, believes Cllr Marks has engaged in a “complete misrepresentation of the facts”.

Cllr Bryony Goodliffe, chair of the children and young people’s committee

Cllr Bryony Goodlife, chair of the children and young people’s committee, said that £135 is “a significant amount of money and does cover some funding for those holidays and we do have evidence of how important this money is to families.”

She told Cllr Count: “I’d be delighted if you could lobby for the Household Support Fund to be continued; it has been a lifeline for our families and is a really important source of income for those.”

Council leader Lucy Nethsingha said that because this money previously came from the Household Support Fund in terms of doing an assessment about withdrawing “this is a withdrawal of government funding rather than of our own funding and therefore it sits in a different position from if we were making a decision”.

The council says the £3m will mean that annually 22,000 eligible children will receive up to £135 over the 6 holidays of the academic year.

It will provide a supermarket voucher which will allow parents to select one of 11 supermarkets.

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The council also intends to make budget provision for the following two years.

Mr Moir said a recent meeting with a Government minister when the Household Support Fund was discussed indicated “there may be a tailing off of that monies, but he didn’t indicate how long or how short that tail was.

“From our prudence point of view, I think what we have been doing in terms of the financial planning for the county council is the nicest way of saying it prepare for the worst hope for the best

“So, we are continuing to put council revenue funding behind the school meals approach because we recognize the need, but we can’t do that to the same extent that was previously funded by government.

Chief executive Stephen Moir: “As I think members will be aware the funding being provided for by government is due to come to an end therefore the county council proposed budget includes continuation of that using our own revenue.”

Chief executive Stephen Moir: “As I think members will be aware the funding being provided for by government is due to come to an end therefore the county council proposed budget includes continuation of that using our own revenue.”

“And even although there may be some continuation of Household Support Fund monies at this stage we have no indication how or where that would be allocated because some authorities will have an even more substantial reduction than Cambridgeshire when the fund dries up.

“The reality is again devil in the detail but of course if there is any extended Household Support Fund available to Cambridgeshire we would welcome that.”

The Household Support Fund was first introduced in October 2021 and allowed councils to significantly expand the help they could give to vulnerable residents during the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

It has been subsequently extended several times, with the current tranche running from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024, although the Government has not confirmed if the fund will be extended, leaving councils and residents in limbo.

The council says the voucher scheme has been a huge success since it was introduced “and appreciated keenly by families struggling in the current financial climate.

“A survey revealed that over 70 per cent of families said the vouchers had helped them cope with the rising cost of living.

“More than 50 per cent said the scheme had reduced the need for them to seek other sources of support in the school holidays such as food banks”.

A council spokesperson added: “Over 46 per cent of those responding to the survey said the vouchers had helped them buy healthier food such as fruit and vegetables for their families.”

In addition to the holiday voucher scheme, there is further support available in response to the cost of living, which can be found here.

Cllr Goodliffe said: “We know how vital these vouchers are to families struggling in the present financial climate.

“Helping them buy healthy food and reduce their reliance on food banks is proof that the scheme is not only valued but also essential.”

 

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