Revolt on 'foolish' policy

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Local authorities express widespread anxiety over implementing free school meals pledge

Open defiance of a flagship Scottish Government policy is increasingly likely after more than half of local authorities refused to back free school meals for all P1-3 pupils.

In the most comprehensive survey on the issue to date, covering all 32 local authorities, The TESS found widespread anxiety about the feasibility of implementing the policy in August 2010 in the face of mounting pressures on their budgets.

Fourteen councils did not know whether they would implement the policy, even though it will be a legislative requirement and funding was factored into the concordat with the Government. Three others said they intended to implement, but contained caveats in carefully-worded responses. Only a handful were confident that cost-cutting or extra funding would not be required.

Pat Watters, the Labour president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, who helped negotiate the concordat, acknowledged that money was available to meet the pledge and Cosla remained committed to it. He wants to re-open talks with the Government, however, to discuss the "emerging and exceptional funding pressures" facing councils. But he was adamant this did not amount to a "re-negotiation" of the concordat.

The parliament's education committee has announced it is to probe the costs of the free meals initiative.

This is not purely a party political spat, with six non-committal authorities having the SNP in their ruling coalitions. One of these, Aberdeen City Council, hopes to ease the financial burden by providing free breakfasts instead of lunches.

Only 15 authorities stated unequivocally that they would implement the initiative: Dumfries and Galloway, East Ayrshire, Falkirk, Fife, Moray, North Ayrshire, Perth and Kinross, Renfrewshire, Scottish Borders, South Ayrshire, Shetland, Stirling, West Dunbartonshire, Western Isles and West Lothian.

Yet even some of the most bullish councils tempered their enthusiasm with warnings of severe financial pressures. Moray Council, for example, was adamant that it would implement the scheme, but had concerns because there would be a shortfall of about Pounds 230,000 if uptake rose from 40 per cent to a predicted 70 per cent.

Many other councils were more hostile. Steven Purcell, Glasgow City Council's Labour leader, speaking after a meeting of the Cosla leadership board last week to discuss free school meals, acknowledged there was funding to meet the pledge, but added: "At this stage, in the current economic climate, I am not prepared to bind Glasgow City Council to any further significant financial commitments for our budget in the year 2010- 11.

"It would be foolish for any authority to do so while there is so much financial flux affecting public services."

Janet Cadenhead, Clackmannanshire Council's Labour leader, was concerned about a lack of clarity over how Government funding would be distributed. "I'm not against free school meals, but I am against making promises when budgets are squeezed as it is and we don't know the costs," she said.

Bob Myles, Angus Council's Independent leader, said the authority felt public opinion was against providing meals for those who could afford it, and added that pilot studies - in the Borders, East Ayrshire, Fife, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire - had been "skewed" and "not exhaustive".

South Lanarkshire Council supports the principle of free school meals, but Eddie McAvoy, its Labour leader, said the "spiralling" cost of heating and lighting, for which the council would have to find an extra Pounds 6 million this year, had so far prevented an agreement on their introduction.

Some councils planned to implement the policy but admitted budget pressures could prevent that. In Orkney, the council had already overspent on energy costs, caused largely by an "enormous" increase in freight costs, while rising food prices were piling on the pressure.

Leslie Manson, director of education in Orkney, said: "We understand fully that the funding for the initiative was contained in the (local government) settlement and therefore do feel an obligation. We have set aside the appropriate level of funding in a contingency for implementation, but as yet we have taken no policy decision actually to do so. We don't know what's round the corner."

David Cameron, children's services director in Stirling Council, reacted vigorously to previous reports that his authority could not afford implementation. "That's not the case at all," he said, stressing that the council made it a "priority" to implement national commitments."

The Government has claimed it was winning the battle over free school meals, with increasing numbers of local authorities signing up to the initiative.

Next week: the survey in detail.

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