Struggling East Ayrshire parents who have accumulated school meal debt since the onset of the pandemic will be given help.

As well as agreeing a plan to deal with up to £15,000 which has been transferred to the council’s debt recovery system, East Ayrshire Council has agreed to put in place a number of provisions to support families manage their school meal payments.

A spokesperson for the council said: “East Ayrshire Council can confirm that a review of historic school meal debt will be undertaken.

“The council will look to support families that are experiencing hardship and who are unable to repay the outstanding debtors account that has previously been issued.”

While there was a consensus that there was a will to help those families who have been struggling with school meal debt, they took two days to finally reach an agreement.

Councillors of different stripes had broached the subject previously, with Labour group leader, Councillor Maureen McKay, formally requesting the write-off of more than £30,000 in historic school meal debt in September.

It was agreed that a full report on how parents could be helped with the management of their school meal payments, taking into account that some informally used the system ‘overdraft’ like credit, regularly falling into arrears before then paying those arrears off.

The initial report was brought before the Cabinet last Wednesday. It highlighted existing policies which provide support for families and ‘help people access nutritious meals in a dignified way’.

The proposals included:

  • Expanding school-based financial inclusion 
  • Allocate £50k for discretionary free school meals for eight weeks.
  • Increase promotion of free school meals
  • Increasing the level of debt triggering formal action from £10 to £40 and delay formal action by four weeks

Councillor McKay asked for a further £33k of the £3.125m set aside to address the cost of living crisis, be used to write off the historic debt.

The cabinet then agreed to defer the decision to the following day’s full council meeting.
During the discussions at the meeting on Thursday, SNP depute leader Jim McMahon proposed that the council look at individual cases where debt had been accrued due to hardship.

At that full meeting, Cllr McKay suggested writing off all historic debt for the three years from 2020/21, totalling almost £15,000.

It was pointed out that council had to consider the families who had paid for meals and the fact that there would be those in debt who were not necessarily forced to do so because of hardship.

Following an adjournment, a compromise was agreed between the parties.

Cllr McMahon said: “We recognise the financial burden placed on families during Covid and the cost of living crisis, particularly around school meal debt and  propose to instruct officers to change practice and make that support retrospective from 2020.”