The Scottish Government will release an emergency fund to clear more than £1m of school meal debt accrued by the children of struggling families.
In a letter, First Minister Humza Yousaf confirmed he would bring forward a one-off emergency fund to support councils to help remove the impact of school meal debt.
It comes after the Scottish Sun teamed up with Aberlour Children’s Charity to launch the Sort the School Debt campaign – which urged the Government to clear debt arrears, claimed to have stood at an estimated £1.8m across the country.
Last year, research by Aberlour found some Scottish councils had pursued youngsters for sums as small as £10 as part of a recovery scheme.
The debts are mostly owed by children in the latter years of primary school, as children in the primary one to primary five-year groups automatically qualify for free school meals in Scotland regardless of household income.
Full details of the emergency fund will be set out in parliament in due course, Yousaf said.
The First Minister’s letter read: “I would like to thank Aberlour and The Scottish Sun for their ongoing work highlighting this important issue.
“You will be aware that the Scottish Government is committed to supporting families across Scotland during these difficult economic times – including the game-changing Scottish Child Payment as part of a package of measures which are seeing an estimated 90,000 fewer children in Scotland live in poverty this year.
“However, we are not complacent and continue to look at ways we can further support people across the country. I am a strong believer that we need to ensure our children and young people have the best start in life and therefore it is important that they can have access to healthy and nutritious meals as part of their learning.
“That is why Scotland has the most comprehensive free school meal offer of any nation in the UK, saving families an average of £400 per eligible child per year, and we are committed to expanding this offer further.
“I am aware that school meal debt can have a significant impact on the mental wellbeing of families and where any family is experiencing difficulties, in the first instance we expect local authorities to use the powers available to them to provide necessary support.
“While school meal debt is ultimately a matter for councils, I am a conscious of the fact that we are in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis as a result of Brexit and the UK Government’s disastrous mismanagement of the economy.
“As a result, I know that many families across Scotland are struggling to make ends meet. That is why, recognising the particular challenges people are facing during the cost-of-living crisis, I can confirm that the Scottish Government will bring forward a one-off, emergency fund to support councils to help remove the impact of school meal debt. Details on this fund will be set out to Parliament in early course.
“I hope you will agree that this is a positive step in supporting families at this time and ensuring that people are not punished for struggling during a cost living crisis caused by the UK Government.”
Aberlour chief executive SallyAnn Kelly OBE said: “We welcome the commitment from the First Minister to write off school meal debt for 30,000 children across Scotland. This is the right thing to do and will provide some relief to low income families struggling to feed their children in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
Over the last two years we have been campaigning for an end to school meal debt since our own research highlighted that thousands of low income working families are struggling to afford school meals for their children. Follow up research has shown that the total value of school meal debt owed by families has grown again this year to nearly £1.8m.
Too many families face food insecurity every day and worry about feeding their children in school or at home. School meal debt is the tip of the iceberg and is a symptom of families simply not having enough money to provide for themselves. It is essential that measures are put in place to prevent school meal debt arising in the first place. It is crucial to increase income thresholds for free school meal eligibility for thousands more low income working families, in order to prevent the debt and tackle hidden school hunger for children.
This month MSPs voted for a new law to protect children’s rights. That includes children’s right to food. That we have school meal debt and hidden school hunger at all in Scotland shows us that right is simply not being met for children. The government must now make sure children’s right to food is upheld and that Scotland does not breach the very commitments we have signed up to.
Cancelling this school meal debt has been a great step forward but more needs to be done. The First Minister must commit to extending free school meal eligibility for all low income working families to stop children being burdened with school meal debt and to make Scotland a country where no child goes hungry.”
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