Thousands lose bid to stop Derbyshire council’s ’41 per cent’ school meal price hike
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Conservative-led Derbyshire County Council announced the 95p price increase in July as a cost-saving measure to be introduced in September aimed at supporting the council’s struggling finances and to ensure its school meals provision remains sustainable.
But 8,888 shocked residents signed a petition launched by county council Labour Group Leader Joan Dixon entitled ‘Stop 41per cent School Meal Price Hike’ asking for school meals to be temporarily set at £2.65 each which forced a debate at a Full Council meeting on November 29.
Cllr Dixon told Cllr Alex Dale, Cabinet Member for Education, at the meeting: “The impact of the decision you made is playing out now for Derbyshire families and children.”
The petitioners wanted the school meal price to be temporarily altered and limited to £2.65 in line with what they believe is a national average while any decision on the 95p increase should be delayed and further reviewed.
They argued the 95p price increase is unaffordable for many families, who are already facing a cost of living crisis, and they fear the price increase will mean fewer Derbyshire children will benefit from a nutritious hot meal at lunchtime which helps their health and learning.
Cllr Dixon said: “We know there were challenges with the school meals budget but the decision was made in the very final days of the school term and unusually was not published immediately.”
She argued that there was no opportunity to discuss the matter at the time and she was critical that the opportunity to debate the meal price increase had taken nearly five months.
Cllr Dixon recognised that ‘the boat has sailed’ and that the school meal price has already increased but she and council Labour Group Deputy Leader Ruth George proposed a further investigation with an examination of the impact on school meal provisions, and that the matter should be reconsidered by the council’s cabinet.
Cllr George said parents and schools have both been shocked after parents are now having to pay almost an extra £5 per week for their children to have a school meal.
She added that the Labour Group has been asking for the new figures on the number of parents taking up school meals since the price increase but she claimed these figures have not been forthcoming.
County council Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr Ed Fordham, expressed concern for the most needy and deserving children and he said the number of people who signed the petition reveals how much this issue means to them.
But Conservative county councillor, Julian Siddle, said: “Everyone has talked about the state of the council’s finances. I cannot see the opposition coming up with a credible alternative.
“If there had not been an increase, the council’s finances would have been in jeopardy.”
Cllr Dale argued that staff pay had created a £1.28m hole in the council’s budget and the council is facing a further increase in its wages bill.
The council Cabinet Member for Education has also previously blamed the rising price of ingredients and that the new school meal price has been introduced to cover costs and to make the service sustainable.
Cllr Dale said: “I understand the impact on families. It is not a decision I enjoyed making at all.”
He added that such decisions are always made around the same time in the year and there were lots of discussions and councillors were previously given the opportunity to call in the decision.
Cllr Dale stressed the council is aware of the financial pressures parents are facing but he said the council is also not immune to these pressures including rising staff costs and it does not want to put jobs at risk.
He added: “It’s about making the service sustainable and setting up for the future.”
Cllr Dale said that the most in need are still covered by free school meals with one quarter of the population eligible.
He added that the council, like many other authorities, is facing huge inflation costs and similarly other councils are also increasing their school meal prices and this was a complicated matter and not one taken lightly.
Cllr Dale said: “This is a difficult decision. Not one I enjoy making, but we have to do these things sometimes and if you are a parent look to the household funds for any support.
“We want to continue providing school dinners for Derbyshire but we want to be able to make that sustainable.
“We note the concerns of parents but we need it to be sustainable so we believe the right decision has been taken.”
The motion for a further investigation with an examination of the impact on school meal provisions and for the price rise to be reconsidered was defeated by a majority vote at the Full Council meeting so the increased cost to school meals stays in place.
Derbyshire County Council has stated that its school catering service provides more than 60,000 hot meals to children at 358 schools across the county.
In September, the financially-troubled council forecast a £46.4m budget deficit for the 2023/24 financial year which the council recently announced has been reduced to a £33m figure after ceasing all non-essential spending and by introducing a conditional hiring freeze and cost-saving measures.
Derbyshire County Council has blamed exceptionally high inflation rates, the impact of Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis for its current financial situation.