Tue, 27 Oct 2020
WEST Berkshire Council has said that arrangements are in place to help families struggling to provide food over the school holidays.
The council said that there was no reason for any children in the district to be going hungry this half-term.
Council leader Lynne Doherty (Con, Speen) said: "We have currently got a system in place that's working. If there are others that we want to put in place specifically for Christmas then we will be looking at doing that over the coming weeks.
"I don't think anybody wants to see children go hungry, we just have a different view around the mechanisms on how we do that.
"I only want the best thing that works in West Berkshire and that's all I'm interested in. What I want to do is have no children go hungry and I'm open to how we do that. I just wonder if other people are open to how to do that."
Council figures show that there are 2,829 children in the district who qualify for free school meals.
Mrs Doherty said it would cost the council £93,000, along with additional administrative arrangements, to provide support to children identified within the free school meals arrangements this Christmas.
It said that people needing help should contact the Community Support Hub on (01635) 503579 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The hub is open during office hours; call between 8.30am and 5pm Monday to Thursday, or between 8.30am and 4.30pm on Friday.
As well as providing support directly, the team also offers advice about other local groups and organisations that might be able to help. For more information and to contact the team via the website visit www.westberks.gov.uk/SupportHub
Businesses, pubs, shops and restaurants stepped forward over the weekend to offer free lunches to children in need during the half-term.
Mrs Doherty said: “It’s been fantastic to see local businesses coming out and offering food to families in need.
"It’s a further demonstration of the passionate community spirit we’ve seen in recent months and something which is to be admired.
"To all those who have been willing to help I express my heartfelt gratitude, I know this can also help to make a difference.”
West Berkshire Liberal Democrats have urged the council to provide the funding to extend the local free school meal scheme into the Christmas holidays.
A petition to help the children within West Berkshire eligible for free school meals has also been launched by the Lib Dems.
Mrs Doherty said that the council could discuss any additional measures to cover the Christmas holidays at a meeting scheduled for December 3.
She said: “We’re here to help anyone who is worried about being able to feed their children or access food this half-term. It’s a difficult time for families but we want them to know they are not alone and that support is available if they need it.
“We remain committed to ensuring that residents are supported during what is a very difficult time for many people.
"I want to reassure everyone that we have arrangements in place which means that no child needs to go hungry in West Berkshire.
"Throughout the pandemic we have worked proactively with local community groups, charities, West Berkshire Volunteer Centre and Greenham Trust to ensure that those facing hardship as a result of the coronavirus are supported.
"I have regularly met with these groups and I would publicly thank them for their work to date.”
Leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition Lee Dillon (Thatcham North East) said: "The whole purpose of the Government or the council providing the support for free school vouchers means that residents are able to access an already established programme and that while it's been amazing to see the goodwill of local businesses and charities, feeding children shouldn't come down to them.
"The council's response to this is not good enough. Rather than signposting those in need elsewhere, the council should show some leadership and take responsibility with a fully funded response of their own.
"The work of local charities, community groups, businesses and individuals in response to this pandemic has been fantastic, and yet again they are stepping up to the mark to offer their support, but at a time when many of these groups themselves are struggling, it should really be government, both local and national, that steps up.
"Laura Farris [Newbury MP] has said that money has been allocated to local councils, so why isn't our local council using this funding to ensure that local children are entitled to vouchers rather than having to rely on the support of businesses and charities?"
Mr Dillon said the Liberal Democrats would continue to push for an extraordinary meeting with enough time to discuss and implement measures before the Christmas holidays.
Mrs Farris voted against a Labour motion last week calling for the free school meals vouchers to be extended over the school holidays until Easter 2021.
In a Facebook Q&A held at the weekend Mrs Farris said that West Berkshire Council received a £103,352 Government payment earlier this year towards emergency funding to help people in need, to help with council tax payments and food.
Mrs Farris said that the council received an additional £964,834 last week, and another £10,000 from the Greenham Trust toward emergency food funds.
She said this allocation had been split to 40 per cent on council tax relief, 15 per cent for white good replacements, 15 per cent for utilities and 20 per cent for emergency food.
Mrs Farris said: "It's right to say that West Berkshire Council has more money available for the purpose of supporting families with food than it would have had, had those families just got free school meal vouchers.
"The difference between the political parties is not a difference of whether we think this is a uniquely difficult time or whether there are children particularly struggling, we agree with that.
"But what we are saying is we are not going to use an extension of a programme that is focussed purely on a school environment to cover the holidays, we are going to use other levers, emergency levers really, to make sure local authorities have the funds to do that."