By Andrew Topping, Local Democracy Reporter
Plans from opposition councillors to explore offering free school meals to all Nottinghamshire primary school pupils have been narrowly rejected.
The Independent Alliance submitted a motion calling for a study into whether Nottinghamshire County Council could offer free meals to all primary-aged children.
All infant school-aged pupils are eligible for free school meals but only children who meet specific criteria can access the service once they reach primary school age.
Criteria includes those families claiming various types of benefits including Universal Credit or Jobseekers’ Allowance.
Latest council figures show 26,669 local school-aged children were eligible and claiming free meals in May 2023.
The council motion came amid concerns about rising child poverty as separate figures suggested 52,029 children were living in poverty countywide last year.
The figures, from the End Child Poverty Coalition campaign, followed stories of some children “eating food from bins at school or even resorting to eating glue”.
It led to the motion – proposed by Cllr Francis Purdue-Horan (Ind) and backed in full by Labour – asking for the Conservative-led council to explore taking further action.
They said the figures mean 25,360 children in Nottinghamshire are living in poverty but are not currently able to claim free school meals.
They asked the council to note the “impact … of free school meals” on supporting children’s life chances and to “investigate providing each [primary] pupil” with a free school meal.
It said similar schemes had been implemented in areas like London and Scotland which helped children who may be falling through the cracks.
The motion did not propose enforcing the policy but asked for the council to look at “process, cost and how to resource it”.
In the meeting, Cllr Purdue-Horan said: “There are thousands of children living in poverty but not eligible for free school meals.
“A primary headteacher told us they have an awful situation where children are turning up and begging for food at their breakfast club.
“Others turn up with no packed lunch and this leaves catering staff with heartbreaking situations of either turning them away or feeding them anyway, which is financially untenable.
“A move to universal free school meals would be a massive benefit to our young students.”
However, it was rejected by ruling Tories who questioned how the policy would be funded.
They referred to the scheme in London, suggesting it is funded in part by money made from ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) charges, and warned similar schemes or extra taxes may be needed to fund the free meal project.
Cllr Ben Bradley MP (Con), the council’s leader, said the London free school meals scheme cost £130m to deliver in one year and says it would cost between £13m and £21m locally.
He also said some Nottinghamshire pupils “largely don’t need” free school meals and taxpayers would not benefit from providing them with free food.
He added: “[London Mayor] Sadiq Khan is taxing drivers – specifically those who can’t afford compliant vehicles and many of whom will have children on free school meals – by £12.50 a day.
“This is in order to provide £2.50 meals for rich families which they didn’t ask for.
“It is literally taxing the poor in order to feed the rich … and the evidence in London is that it isn’t popular with the public.
“This council will always focus its resources on those people who genuinely need our help, rather than those who are already managing fine.”
Transport for London says all money received from ULEZ is reinvested into public transport and making London’s air cleaner.
It is ringfenced cash which can only be spent on funding schemes set out in Mr Khan’s Air Quality Strategy.
Many opposition councillors objected to the Conservatives’ reasons for rejection and suggested the ruling group turned the motion into a debate about ULEZ.
Cllr Michael Payne (Lab), who represents Arnold North, said: “Everybody looking into this debate from the outside can see what that wrought of – desperation.
“On the whole debate about ULEZ, I can see what you [Conservatives] are all trying to do because you’re so desperate you’re not going to win your parliamentary constituencies or county divisions.
“You’re setting up a boogeyman and trying to scare people.”
The motion was narrowly defeated by 30 votes to 26.