Welsh Conservatives criticise ‘uncosted’ free school meals rollout
The Welsh Conservatives have criticised the government’s free school meals policy, claiming the numbers “do not add up”.
The roll-out of universal free meals to all pupils in primary education in Wales got underway on Wednesday with children aged between four and five who are starting school being offered free meals from this month onwards.
It is part of a phased expansion of school meals to all primary school children in Wales by 2024, about 272,000 children.
According to research carried out by the Tories, a significant number of councils expect to overspend their allocation of funding to administer the policy.
Flintshire council is predicting a spend of at least £1.8 million for 2022/23 which would exceed their capital funding grant allocation by over £500,000 and Gwynedd is expecting to spend £1.6 million, a nearly £500,000 overspend.
Newport Council is set to exceed its allocated £1.28 million and plans to hire 22 more kitchen staff and offer additional hours to current staff.
Monmouthshire Council has allocated an estimated £1.6 million for kitchen refurbishments in their 31 primary schools as well as funds for an additional 21 kitchen staff and potentially 14 or more staff on top of this.
This would represent an over £1.3 million overspend of their capital funding grant, so far.
Responding to the figures, Shadow Local Government Minister, Sam Rowlands MS said: “The Welsh Conservatives have argued against this policy on the grounds that a blanket, untargeted approach means spending taxpayers’ cash on feeding the children of those parents who can afford it.
“It seems from these figures that Flintshire, Gwynedd, Newport and Monmouthshire councils are set to overspend, frontloading the costs of this scheme in the expectation that future budget increases will cover the inevitable upcoming shortfalls, which is very distressing.
“The numbers so far do not add up, indicating that this is turning out to be yet another uncosted Labour project set to eat a hole in Wales’ budget and shred councils’ reserves, resulting in less money for other essential frontline services.”
The Welsh Government has allocated £230 million to the scheme but, with rising food prices, energy and logistics costs, First Minister Drakeford said they would be “watching the budget very carefully”.
Currently an average of 44% of primary school children receive free lunches, although this varies depending on local authority.
Some schools will have to more than double their capacity to serve hot meals.
The scheme was one of the key commitments in the Labour and Plaid Cymru co-operation agreement signed last year.
Responding to the figures quoted by Mr Rowlands, a Welsh Government spokesperson said: “These figures are out of date. They do not take into account the additional £35m that we have since provided on top of the funding already available. We are committed to making sure no child goes hungry in school.
“As well as supporting families during the cost of living crisis, offering free school meals to all primary school pupils will help tackle the stigma associated with targeted support, increase uptake of healthy, nutritious meals, and invest in our economy by supporting businesses providing local, sustainable food.”
Currently an average of 44% of primary school children receive free lunches, although this varies depending on local authority and the government is hoping to see an average take-up of 86% across Wales.
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