More than 150,000 children across Scotland will benefit from extra funding to extend free school meals over the Christmas and Easter holidays, the social security secretary has announced.
Shirley-Anne Somerville confirmed more than £10 million will be given to local authorities to cover meals over the Christmas, February and Easter breaks.
Reimbursements will also be available for councils that have kept their projects running through the October holiday as part of a £350 million package announced in March to help vulnerable people during the pandemic.
Ms Somerville said: “This important investment will support around 156,000 children and young people, helping families meet the cost of meals over the school holidays.
“It will be for local authorities to decide how this support is delivered, however, we continue to advocate for a cash-first approach where appropriate, giving families the choice of what food they buy and where they buy it.”
Attended today’s Daily Briefing to announce £10 million for local councils to help fund free school meals.
— S-A Somerville (@S_A_Somerville) October 20, 2020
Bill Scott, the chairman of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, welcomed the “much-needed additional help for low income families and individual”.
“The funding for free school meals during the Christmas, February and Easter breaks will come as a great relief for many hard-pressed parents,” he said.
“We would urge local authorities to use the flexibility given to them by the Scottish Government to ensure that every penny of extra help available gets to those who need it most.”
A further £20 million will be handed to local authorities to deal with “financial insecurity”, with councils able to decide how they spend the increase.
Ms Somerville said the extra funding could be used to supplement budgets used to administer the Scottish Welfare Fund, boosting discretionary housing payments or for fuel costs.
The announcement is likely to heap extra pressure on the UK Government following a campaign by Manchester United star Marcus Rashford for free school meals to be provided to children in England over half term.
The footballer has laid down a gauntlet to MPs to prove they “care” about hungry children ahead of a showdown vote on the Commons on Wednesday.
Boris Johnson was already forced into a U-turn over free school meals in the summer, and MPs will vote on a Labour motion to continue providing free meals until spring.
A petition urging ministers to end child hunger has now secured nearly 300,000 signatures but Downing Street has remained defiant, stating: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays.”
The Scottish Tories have been urged to vote for England to follow Scotland’s lead on the issue after leader Douglas Ross promised to introduce free school meals at both breakfast and lunch for all primary pupils in Scotland if he becomes first minister.
The SNP’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Neil Gray, said: “The Tories have an opportunity to support thousands of families worried about how they will put food on the table in the weeks ahead, but they have repeatedly refused to do so.
“Recent indications from Douglas Ross that he wishes to end the Tories’ opposition to expanding free school meals provision are welcome but for this to mean anything, he should support the Scottish Government’s expansion of the scheme and call on his Tory colleagues to follow suit at Westminster.”
The announcement of new funding in Scotland was welcomed by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, who said it would provide “essential support for hard-pressed and poverty stricken families”.
Mr Leonard said Marcus Rashford had run an “inspirational campaign that has forced both the UK and Scottish governments to make concessions and to rethink their initial reluctance to provide ongoing support during holiday periods”.
He added: “It is vital that ministers ensure this package of support is fully and swiftly delivered, and that local councils have the funding in place to make sure that all children in need of free school meals receive them whatever the time of year.”