Half-term food vouchers for families asking for help amid Universal Credit cut

The number of Cambridgeshire children receiving free school meals has risen by 20 per cent since the

The number of Cambridgeshire children receiving free school meals has risen by 20 per cent since the start of the pandemic. It follows footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign to extend free school meals. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Archant

Vital food vouchers will be given to parents this October half-term after a rising number of people went to Cambridgeshire County Council asking for help following the Government’s cut of the £20 Universal Credit.

The county council has received just over £3.5million from a central government household support fund, which was announced on October 7, to offer support for low-income families.

At a meeting of the county council’s children and young people committee on Tuesday October 19, councillors were asked to approve for some of the funds to be used for a school holiday voucher scheme, and for £2.4m of the funds to be allocated to a wider support scheme.

Councillor Alex Bulat, asked a council officer whether the cut to the £20 Universal Credit uplift would impact the demand for the programme compared to the previous support schemes, as she said she had heard “concern” from some in her ward.

The officer responded saying that having “manned the inbox” and seeing the emails coming in, it was his “impression” that there are a lot more parents asking for support.

The proposals were brought before the committee ‘urgently’ so that if approved the vouchers could be distributed to families for the October Half Term.

The Direct Voucher Scheme will offer parents a choice of supermarkets, with each eligible child receiving a £15 voucher for each week of the school holiday.

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The scheme is also planned to run in the Christmas holiday and February Half Term.

Pupils eligible for the vouchers this time will include those receiving Early Years Pupil Premium, children with access funded two-year-old education, those who are eligible for free school meals, and students eligible for a 16-plus bursary.

While councillors voiced support for the proposals, both for the voucher scheme and the wider support scheme, some raised concerns about the lack of details surrounding the wider support scheme.

The committee was told by council officers that through the wider support scheme, the £2.4 million will be passed to the district and city councils in Cambridgeshire, to enable them to make direct awards to households in urgent need.

The focus for the funding is proposed to provide support for buying food, but can be used for other areas at the council’s discretion.

The council officer said it would need to be monitored to see when things need to be ‘switched on or off’ in the scheme, adding that he thought it is “probably likely” they will need to put more money in for fuel as a result of the £20 Universal Credit uplift cut.

Councillor Sam Hoy said she was “concerned” about the wider support proposals as she was not “entirely convinced” from the report as to what measures are in place to allocate the funds.

Cllr Hoy said: “I’m not convinced the £2.4million is going to be very well spent. I don’t think we’ve got very much oversight on how that is going to be spent and I would be much keener on seeing us make a decision on the urgent decision today on the meal vouchers, because we know that they are desperately needed now, but actually coming back and looking perhaps in November at the wider support.

“I think it is very important we get this right if we’re going to be giving out such a large amount of money to people.”

Councillor Steve Count also raised similar concerns relating to the detail over the wider support fund plans and suggested an amendment to the recommendations, to approve the vouchers, but wait for a report with more details to come back to the committee before approving the wider support scheme.

The council officer raised the issue that in doing so, some people may not be able to receive support over the October Half Term.

Cllr Count therefore revised his suggested amendment to allow for the release of some funds under the wider support scheme to cover the half term period, but for a further report to come back to a November meeting of the committee, after the Communities, Social Mobility and Inclusion Committee had considered the wider aspects of the proposals of the grant.

Councillor Michael Atkins said he felt the amendment would add “unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape”.

He said: “I appreciate the sentiments of what’s being proposed but I feel like we’re making a bit of a meal of this.

“I think if we’re prepared to give authorisation for about 20 per cent of the fund, CoSMIC is meeting in a couple of weeks anyway, I feel like the urgency of this need might arise quite soon, this seems like a bit of unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape.

“I appreciate if we were signing the entire scheme just on the basis of what’s here I could understand some reservations, but realistically this is coming back before committee where it will be heavily scrutinised in a couple of weeks.”

Councillors voted on the amendment and it was agreed to be added to the recommendations by a majority of nine votes, to eight. The voucher scheme and the amended recommendation relating to the wider scheme was then approved.