EDUCATION chiefs have denied a funding shortfall could scupper plans to provide free school meals for children in the Chester area.
Labour parliamentary candidate Chris Matheson claims Cheshire West and Chester Council is struggling to find £1m to fund the government-imposed scheme across the borough.
The funding ‘black hole’ emerged after a nationwide investigation by the Labour Party using the Freedom of Information Act, he said.
The research suggested CWaC was one of many councils across the country to report difficulties finding the money to fund the Universal Infant Free School Meals programme for youngsters in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2.
The scheme is due to start in the nation’s primary schools from September.
Mr Matheson said: “Free school meals for all early years pupils is a lovely idea, but you can’t set government policy by sticking your finger in the wind and hoping for the best. Policies must be carefully thought through and properly costed and funded
“This policy was introduced as a panic measure by the coalition government desperate to make it look like they understood the pressures families are under. But they had not thought it through – some Cheshire schools don’t even have the kitchen and dining capacity at the moment to deliver this policy.
“And now we hear that CWaC is expected to find an extra £1m a year from an already stretched budget to deliver a policy that has just not been properly planned by the government.”
However, Cllr Mark Stocks, CWaC’s executive member for education and children, said the council had already received a government grant to pay for the scheme and had also dipped into its capital maintenance grant, which it receives from the Department for Education.
“There is not a £1m shortfall,” Cllr Stocks said.
“The government provided a grant of £851,000 to schools via the council for the implementation of Universal Infant Free School Meals. This grant is paying for additional equipment and some capital works that are required for the delivery of this programme.
“CWaC decided to invest approximately £1m from the DfE Capital Maintenance Grant in a number of schools that require updated or additional facilities in order to deliver universal infant free school meals from September.
“This investment is in addition to the government grant awarded to the council.”