Councillors reject £660k free school meals boost in Central Bedfordshire then approve own pay-rise

Local councillors have been accused of telling ‘sob-stories’ about how they are struggling in the cost-of-living crisis to ensure their own pay-rises – after they rejected debating a £660,000 boost for free school meals moments before.

Tories at Central Bedfordshire Council unanimously voted against debating a motion for an inflationary 10 per cent uplift to the £6.6million free school meals budget – which provides just 82p worth of food per child per day after other costs.

Millionaire Tory cabinet member Cllr Steve Dixon, who is one of the largest shareholders in a major UK developer, said that ‘it doesn’t matter if you live in a cottage or a manor house, we’re all affected by cost-of-living increases’. 

Mr Dixon would have earned in the region of £160,000 in dividends last year for his 3.4% stake in the parent company of developer Willmott-Dixon, Hardwicke Investments, which turns over more than £1billion a year. He also received over £31,000 in allowances last year.

Minutes after shooting down the free school meals debate Tories passionately argued against a motion to stop their own allowances – over £1million a year between them – from automatically rising with inflation, and voted it down.

This comes as families continue to struggle with the cost-of-living crisis due to soaring energy bills, high levels of inflation and now concerns over mortgages since Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-budget sent financial markets into meltdown.

Household savings have halved according to a survey by accounting firm KPMG as families have to fork out nearly £1,800 extra to cover their bills across the year. 

A motion to boost the Central Bedfordshire's free school meals budget was made by independent opposition Cllr Gareth Mackey (pictured standing) last Thursday but Tories shot down the opportunity to even debate it

Gareth Mackey is the independent Central Bedfordshire Councillor for Flitwick

A motion to boost the Central Bedfordshire’s free school meals budget was made by independent opposition Cllr Gareth Mackey (pictured) last Thursday but Tories shot down the opportunity to even debate it

'It doesn't matter if you live in a cottage or a manor house, we're all affected by cost-of-living increases,' said millionaire Tory cabinet member Cllr Steve Dixon (pictured standing)

Conservative Steve Baker is the Executive Member for Sustainability and Transformation and a large shareholder in one of the UK's biggest developers Willmott-Dixon

‘It doesn’t matter if you live in a cottage or a manor house, we’re all affected by cost-of-living increases,’ said millionaire Tory cabinet member Cllr Steve Dixon (pictured)

Independent Cllr John Baker (pictured standing) slammed Tory councillors telling 'sob-stories' to ensure they get an pay-rise while voting not to debate increasing the free school meals budget

John Baker is the independent councillor for Aspley and Woburn in Central Bedfordshire

Independent Cllr John Baker (pictured standing) proposed the motion to limit councillor allowance rises and then slammed Tory councillors for  telling ‘sob-stories’ to ensure they get an pay-rise while voting not to debate increasing the free school meals budget

Tories at Central Bedfordshire Council unanimously voted against debating a motion for an inflationary 10 per cent uplift to the £6.6million free school meals budget - which provides just 82p worth of food per child per day after other costs (file photo of school lunches)

Tories at Central Bedfordshire Council unanimously voted against debating a motion for an inflationary 10 per cent uplift to the £6.6million free school meals budget – which provides just 82p worth of food per child per day after other costs (file photo of school lunches)

The motion to boost the authority’s free school meals budget, made by independent opposition councillor Gareth Mackey last Thursday, was directed to the council executive, who appear unlikely to approve it.

Free school meals became have become a much debated topic since the pandemic, after footballer Marcus Rashford successfully pressured the government to provide meals to hungry pupils who were learning from home in June 2020.

The government then got itself into more hot water in January last year as children received ‘paltry’ and ‘disgusting’ food parcels during half-term, but after Boris Johnson had a call with Mr Rashford they U-turned and provided £15 vouchers.

In the full council meeting last Thursday, September 22, Cllr Mackey said: ‘In my day job I have an intimate knowledge of the wholesale prices of food.

‘We hear that many families have got to make the choice of heating or eating that is becoming – even with government support – all the more prevalent in the country.

‘I asked one of my local schools what they spend on free school meals and the shocking fact is once you take out the cost of energy and staffing… the price per child per meal per day is 82 pence.

‘Who on Earth can go out and buy anything nutritious for 82 pence?’

Cllr Mackey implored to do ‘the art of the possible’ and support his motion to target the 11,000 children whose only substantial meal may be their free school meal.

‘Instead of feeding our own egos, lets feed a few children who need it more than we do,’ he concluded.

This pupil's food parcel from January last year was supposed to last them a week (file photo)

This pupil’s food parcel from January last year was supposed to last them a week (file photo)

Two children attending a school in Nottingham were handed this food parcel in January last year, and it was supposed to last them a whole week (file photo)

Two children attending a school in Nottingham were handed this food parcel in January last year, and it was supposed to last them a whole week (file photo)

The chair Cllr Gordon Perham said the motion would be automatically referred to the executive as it is a financial matter, unless councillors vote to have a debate – who then subsequently voted it down.

Central Bedfordshire Council leader Richard Wenham told MailOnline the executive would consider the free school meals motion in early October at the earliest, but more likely not until December.

The Tory leader added that while he did not want to preempt the executive’s decision, he questioned whether it would be ‘legal’ to force schools to ring-fence extra local funding for free school meals.

Central Bedfordshire Council leader Tory Richard Wenham (pictured) told MailOnline that Cllr Mackey's free school meals motion was 'poorly worded and ill thought out'

Central Bedfordshire Council leader Tory Richard Wenham (pictured) told MailOnline that Cllr Mackey’s free school meals motion was ‘poorly worded and ill thought out’

Cllr Wenham said schools ‘would not be under any obligation’ to use the money for free school meals and branded Cllr Mackey’s motion as ‘poorly worded and ill thought out… while his intentions were no doubt good.’

But the Department for Education told MailOnline that councils were free to supplement free school meals budgets and could assure that the money was spent as intended by using a grants scheme – an idea which Cllr Mackey supported.

Cllr Mackey told MailOnline that had the motion been debated, they could have ironed out any issues and asked council officers to put together proposals for how to implement this policy. He added that the motion had been on the books for several months, so council leaders had ample time to suggest amendments or alternative solutions.

Seconds after the free school meals motion was shot down, fellow independent Cllr John Baker proposed a motion to ‘forgo the inflationary element of the Members’ Allowances’ increase for this year.

While the pay-rise has yet to be determined, with inflation so high the inflationary index is likely to be at least 5 per cent, Cllr Baker said, and possibly up to 10 per cent – a total rise of between around £50,000 to £100,000.

This means that councillors with no specific responsibilities could receive between an extra £550 to £1,100 per year – and senior members such as Cllr Dixon could receive an extra £1,550 to £3,100 per year.

Executive Member for Community Services Cllr Ian Dalgarno (pictured standing) said did not just want 'people who are recently retired or who can afford to give up work to become councillors' due to the allowances being too low

Conservative Ian Dalgarno is the Executive Member for Community Services at Central Bedfordshire Council

Executive Member for Community Services Cllr Ian Dalgarno (pictured) said did not just want ‘people who are recently retired or who can afford to give up work to become councillors’ due to the allowances being too low

Cllr Gordon Perham (pictured with his hand raised) said the free school meals motion would be automatically referred to the executive as it is a financial matter, unless councillors vote to have a debate - who then subsequently voted it down. Cllr Perham later voted against stopping his own pay-rise

Tory Gordon Perham is the Chair of the Council

Cllr Gordon Perham (pictured) said the free school meals motion would be automatically referred to the executive as it is a financial matter, unless councillors vote to have a debate – who then subsequently voted it down. Cllr Perham later voted against stopping his own pay-rise

Cllr Baker told the council: ‘Luckily I had a good meal before I came here today.

‘Allowances for members of this council are linked to inflation – we have discussed today many times that we are facing difficult economic times particularly for our residents… and children.

‘It’s easy for councillors to accept every increase in allowances but ultimately someone’s got to pay for it.’

He said that other important public servants, such as school governors, do large amounts of unpaid work for the good of their community.

Cllr Baker added that these savings could then be used for increasing funding for other services and urged councillors to ‘do the right thing’. He told MailOnline that this money would cover around 10 to 15 per cent of Cllr Mackey’s free school meals plan.

Executive Member for Sustainability and Transformation, Cllr Steve Dixon was the first to voice opposition, saying: ‘It doesn’t matter if you live in a cottage or a manor house, we’re all affected by cost-of-living increases – pressures on fuel, pressures on heating.

‘And it’s rather crass to suggest that we’re not, because we all are. It doesn’t matter what your circumstances are, we’re all facing increased costs of some significance.’

Next to speak against the motion was Executive Member for Community Services Cllr Ian Dalgarno, who said: ‘I take the view that we don’t just want people who are recently retired or who can afford to give up work to become councillors.

‘For some councillors it’s part of their income streams. We need to make sure, as we bring people in, they know what their potential income may be… some people do rely on that.’

Independent Cllr Victoria Harvey rejected Cllr Baker’s motion saying: ‘I congratulate the members who brought this for how well off you are and how well you’ve succeeded in life.

‘I am very, very conscious of the number of people who, in order to be a councillor, have to cut down on their work and struggle to pay the bills in order to be able to give the time.

‘The job of a councillor is actually huge if you do it properly. It is crucial we have the time to attend the briefings on adult social care when we are talking about the most vulnerable in our society. 

‘The whole point of this allowance is to allow you the time.’

Independent Cllr Victoria Harvey (pictured) rejected Cllr Baker's motion and said she was 'very, very conscious of the number of people who, in order to be a councillor, have to cut down on their work and struggle to pay the bills in order to be able to give the time'

Victoria Harvey is the independent councillor for Linslade and sits on three council committees

Independent Cllr Victoria Harvey (pictured) rejected Cllr Baker’s motion and said she was ‘very, very conscious of the number of people who, in order to be a councillor, have to cut down on their work and struggle to pay the bills in order to be able to give the time’

Several other councillors voiced their objections but independent Cllr Rebecca Hares, who works for Waitrose, supported the motion as they were ‘forgetting people on fixed incomes who don’t have that luxury’ of increasing their own pay.

The motion was then voted down by a large majority, including the chair who voted against it, so councillors will see their allowances rise with inflation.

This comes two years after an independent pay review body recommended that executive allowances should be cut by around £5,000 per year.

Cllr Baker slammed those who voted against his motion to limit allowance rises, saying it was ‘heartbreaking’ to hear ‘sob-stories put forward by Conservative councillors’ saying it was ‘telling’ that less well off councillors supported him.

He told MailOnline: ‘It was particularly disappointing, and frankly heartbreaking, to hear the sob-stories put forward by Conservative (and one Independent for Linslade) councillors in defence of a significant increase in their own allowances for what is a voluntary role.

‘Even the Chairman of the Local Government Association, who is a member of the Council, was arguing for more money – and he receives multiple allowances!

‘I simply suggested that for one year only, we forgo an inflationary increase in allowances, money that could be used to support Cllr Mackey’s excellent proposal to boost funding for healthy free school meals.

‘It was telling that whilst less well off Labour and Independent councillors supported a freeze in allowances, those in receipt of the greatest allowances disagreed – some of whom will receive an increase more than the (now withdrawn) £20 per week Universal Credit uplift.’

Cllr Gareth Mackey accused the Tory leadership at the council of a ‘lack of political will… to help vulnerable children’ and said they had ‘run out of ideas’ after they rejected his free school meals debate.

He told MailOnline: ‘It is disappointing to hear Cllr Wenham’s comments with regards to my proposal.

‘Given that there are ways in which the extra funding I requested could be delivered, that is to say potentially via a ring fenced grant, it seems to me that there is a lack of political will or imagination within the administration to help vulnerable children in this way.

‘Perhaps in their panic and rush to justify their need for an increased allowance, members of the Conservative Administration have not had the capacity to see the situation clearly. I very much hope that on reflection, they see that taking this small step to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society is entirely possible and exactly the reason they are paid their allowances.

‘There is no place for greed or self interest in serving the public.

‘I would add that it is very worrying when a party has been in power for so long that they run out of ideas and impetus. It is even more worrying that they then misdirect their energies on confounding those who are able to genuinely come up with ways to more fully serve the public need.’

William

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